First Light - Prequel to the Lightbearer Series by Tami Lund

“Look at how their naked torsos glisten in the sunlight,” Sabine said, her voice full of admiration. Her friend Maria giggled and Sabine shushed her. “Do not alert them to our presence,” she whispered.
First Light - Prequel to the Lightbearer Series
First Light - Prequel to the Lightbearer Series by Tami Lund
They lay on their stomachs on the dusty ground, on a ledge of the cliffs within which the Lightbearers made their homes. Hiding beneath the branches of an overgrown bush, they watched the Lightbearer warriors go about their daily practice. The half-naked Lightbearer warriors. As eager as she had been to accompany Sabine, Maria had complained of sullying their dresses until Sabine reminded her they could use magic to put themselves to rights again. Well, Maria could, at any rate. All Lightbearers possessed magic, but it manifested itself in a variety of ways, and not always equally. Take the warriors, for example. The number of males who possessed the ability to summon a sword seemed to dwindle with each generation. Although, in truth, that could be attributed to their mortal enemy, the shapeshifters, who continued to grow more bold and cunning in their attacks. Sabine was another example of the unequal distribution of magical abilities. A food gatherer and preparer for the coterie, she was lousy at her job. She rarely managed to collect enough fruit or vegetables to appease the cooks. What she did gather was too ripe or not ripe enough, and she managed to ruin whatever dish she was assigned to prepare. Clearly, that was not where her magical ability lay. Unfortunately, she had not found anything else she was good at, so she was stuck trying to do the same task her mother did, under the assumption that one day her magic would cooperate and she would finally excel at her assigned role. Given she was coming up on her twenty-first summer, it seemed unlikely she would ever find a way to have a positive influence within the coterie. “We should go,” Maria said. “We still need to gather berries before the sun sets.” “Wait. Look.” Sabine pointed at the group of warriors. They had all stopped swinging swords and parrying and now stood at attention as another Lightbearer joined their group. He was taller than the rest, with thick, white-blond hair he kept trimmed short, and a smoothly shaven face. His deep blue eyes were so dark they appeared almost black, and made a nice contrast against his sun-tanned skin and pale hair. “The king,” Maria said in a breathy voice, as her gaze, along with Sabine’s, became riveted on the newcomer. The two women watched as he paused and spoke to his warriors before stripping off his white linen shirt and tossing it to the ground. At the sight of his bare chest, with its sharply defined peaks and valleys, Sabine sucked in a mouthful of dust. She sneezed and then began coughing uncontrollably, while her eyes watered so profusely she could no longer admire the king on whom she—like nearly every female in the coterie—had a crush. Not that he would ever notice her. As small as his kingdom had become over the years, it was still defined by strict social guidelines. The king had his warriors and his court of attendants, and then there were the peasants, those who saw to the everyday tasks involved in ensuring the inhabitants were fed, the coterie was clean, and everyone had clothing on their body. Sabine heard Maria utter, “Oh no,” a moment before she felt hands on her body, and then she was lifted to her feet and those same hands moved to her face, cupping her cheeks. Magic flared, slipping from those large, warm hands into her body, clearing the dust from her lungs and allowing her to breathe freely again. Sabine wiped tears and dirt from her eyes and said, “thank you” before she realized who had helped her. “Oh,” she said, the word coming out as a squeak. “Your grace.” She had only been this close to the king one other time. It had been three months ago, when she had returned to the coterie with a basketful of avocados—for once having had a successful foraging experience—and had tripped over a rock, falling to her knees, and spilling the fruits of her labor at the entrance to the cave. While a small group of onlookers had jeered and laughed, the king had hurried over, dropped to the ground and helped her gather the errant fruits. When he offered to carry the once-again full basket to the kitchens, she had shaken her head and rushed away, too embarrassed to even mumble a thank you. “You—you are a healer,” she blurted. His smile was a lift of one corner of his mouth. It took her breath away, and she feared instead of coughing and sneezing, she might pass out. “Yes. I am not afforded much opportunity to use the ability, but I can manage small tasks, like helping you to breathe properly again. What I cannot do, I’m afraid, is clean your person or your dress.” Sabine glanced down at her filthy dress and immediately began brushing at the material, stirring up a fresh cloud of dust. The king sneezed and waved a hand in front of his face. “I am so—my apologies, your grace.” She waved at the thick cloud of dissipating dust and accidentally smacked him on the nose. Sabine clapped her hands over her mouth. “I apologize again,” she said, her voice garbled because she spoke through her fingers. He rubbed his nose and said, “How about we settle for a thank you?” His gaze roved over Sabine, then Maria, then landed on the two wicker baskets lying on the ground. “What were you two doing up here?” “Picking berries,” Maria blurted. The king smirked. “And you picked the bush clean, I see. Did you eat all the berries?” Sabine could hear the teasing note to his voice. With more bravery than she would have thought possible, she straightened her spine and said, “We were watching the warriors practice.” Maria gasped and the king’s smile widened. “Oh? Looking for fighting techniques?” I wish. Sabine hated her role within the coterie. Not that it stopped her from dreaming. “Or perhaps you were enjoying the view?” Was it her imagination, or did the king sound hopeful? Before she could decide, Maria snagged the baskets, hooked her arm through the crook of Sabine’s elbow, and dragged her away. “We had best get to it. We’ve only a few hours of daylight left. Thank you, your grace,” Maria called over her shoulder as she led Sabine toward the path that would take them down to the bank of the river below. As she hurried along, Sabine glanced over her shoulder and saw the king still standing there, watching their retreat. He had the oddest look on his face. **** “We should not be so far from the coterie without a warrior to protect us,” Maria commented as she filled her basket with ripe, red berries. “You are the one who said these berries grow best away from the shadows cast by the cliffs,” Sabine replied. “Besides, we haven’t seen a shifter since the king took over and moved us here.” “He is a handsome king, is he not? And by the way, I noticed he could not keep his eyes off you,” Maria teased. “Do not be silly. He was annoyed that I got dust in his face and made him sneeze.” “Actually, I think he quite enjoyed the banter.” “Banter?” “Yes. It’s conversation, except more fun.” Maria methodically plucked berries and dropped them into her basket. The pile of berries was lush and ripe and perfect. Sabine’s was a small mass of mostly crushed, red bits and pieces. She tried to recall what had been fun about the brief conversation she’d had with their king. It was now the second humiliating experience she’d had in his presence. She hoped she could avoid any future interactions. Maria, much to her relief, changed the subject. “Why do you suppose they want our magic so badly, anyway? Shifters have the ability to change forms at will. We cannot do that. What do we have that they could possibly want?” Sabine had thought long and hard on this topic. “Their magic manifests itself in one way and one way only. Ours does so many different ways. Our healers have the ability to pull pain and injury from others. Our cooks make fabulous meals with the barest of ingredients. Some of us even have the ability to pull dirt and dust from one’s dress.” Maria took the hint and waved her hand in Sabine’s direction. Magic shimmered through the air, and then her dress was devoid of any telltale signs of having lain on the ground, spying on a bunch of shirtless men with rather nicely defined chests. “And then there is our ability to create light, which comes in terribly handy after the sun has set. Oh, and of course, our warriors’ ability to create weapons with which to defend us. I can see why the shifters would want to steal our magic.” Maria hefted her basket and motioned for Sabine to follow, and they made their way out of the berry patch. “Okay, fine, but why do those filthy animals continue to believe they can steal our magic if they kill us? How many of us have they murdered already, and not a one has developed any more magic than the ability to shift form?” “Far too many,” Sabine said. “I am tired of losing my friends and family. I cannot recall the last Lightbearer who died of natural causes. Those bastards keep killing us before we have the chance to truly live. I wish I could conjure a sword so I could help protect the coterie.” Maria’s gasp told her she’d spoken the words out loud, words she’d thought a hundred times in her life. “Don’t be silly, Sabine. Only males can summon weapons and defend us.” Maria guided her friend through a path that had been carved in a grassy field, which would lead them to the river that would then lead them to the coterie. “How do you know? Do you know a female who has ever tried?” “Why would a female want to?” Maria countered. “Don’t you want to find a mate, start a family?” “I suppose. But why can I not do both?” “Females are responsible for begetting babes and raising families, taking care of the home.” “While I have yet to experience firsthand the relationship between a man and woman, my mother has explained the process, and according to her, the woman does not create life all on her own. So if males can have mates and families and still fight shifters, why can I not do it as well? Right now, you and I, we are—” “Lambs to our wolves. Or whatever form we choose to take.” The voice came from behind her, and Sabine whipped around so fast, the berries in her basket scattered every which way. Two six-foot tall men stood in the path from which she and Maria had just come. With shoulders twice as broad as most men in Sabine’s immediate circle, they both had shaggy, dark locks and thick facial hair, although one appeared to take far greater care with his than the other. Why Sabine would notice such an insignificant detail, she could not say. She also noticed their black eyes, and the way their gazes never wavered, never left her and Maria. Shifters. The unkempt one slapped his compatriot in the chest with the back of his hand. “We found us some Lightbearers, Xander. See how they glow?” Sabine hardly noticed the glow, probably because she’d lived with it for her entire life. The shimmer of magic dancing over their skin was one reason why Lightbearers tended to steer clear of areas heavily populated with humans. While most humans were ambivalent to the way a Lightbearer’s skin shone, those with strong beliefs in religion or the supernatural tended to notice. The one named Xander did not respond but instead stalked toward them while his partner scurried to keep pace. They appeared to not be the least bit worried the women would run—or attack. Sabine could easily take them by surprise—if only she could conjure a weapon. Her right hand tingled and magic flared for a moment, drawing the gazes of both men. Maria screamed, dropped her basket of berries, and ran. The less attractive of the two men—did she really just think that about a shifter?—let out a gleeful laugh and gave chase. Sabine clutched her basket and resisted the urge to follow. She was certain her friend would not make it back to the coterie alive. Biting her lip, she ignored the ache growing in her chest and focused on the remaining shifter. Xander watched the chase with an almost bored look before turning his head and arching his eyebrows. “You aren’t running.” His accent was thick and strange. He was not local. Had he deliberately made his way to this hot, dry climate in search of the Lightbearers’ latest hiding place? “It’s said running makes your kind more eager for the kill.” Surprise leaped to his face. He crossed his arms and contemplated her. “This is true.” “I am in no hurry to die.” The shifter walked slowly in a circle around her but made no attempt to draw closer to Sabine. She turned with him, never letting him see her back. “I am not a lamb.” Sabine stood straight and tall, determined to face her adversary head on. She would not cower in fear. She would not run. Light flared around her hand and she dropped her basket. It was as though fire was coursing through the veins in her arm. “Something wrong with your magic?” he finally asked. He stopped and watched her hand as if he expected it to do tricks. She looked down and frowned. “No. Other than I have an urge to attack you.” He laughed, a deep, hearty sound, as if he found what she said outrageously amusing. For the briefest moment, her magic sparked as irritation swept through her, and it felt as though she were holding something. Something heavy and dangerous. A weapon. She stared at her hand. A great flash of light brightened the dusky landscape, coming from the direction in which Maria had run. Sabine’s heart contracted and tears flooded her eyes. One of her dearest friends was dead. “Carlos found your friend.” “So it would appear.” She blinked away the tears, fighting to keep the emotion off her face. She would not let this murderer see any weakness. She had told him she was not a lamb, not a pitiful, defenseless being, and she meant to prove her words true. He seemed taken aback by her forthright attitude. “Do you think he will come back filled with Lightbearer magic?” “No,” Sabine said flatly. “Killing us kills us. You cannot inherit a Lightbearer’s magic in that way.” He cocked his head and continued to study her, as if fascinated by what he saw. “So how do you inherit a Lightbearer’s magic?” She lifted her chin and refused to answer. It was none of his business. The fates knew he would never be given the opportunity to find out. His focus was diverted, presumably listening to the other one make his way back after having killed Maria. Now is my chance. Sabine stared at him. If only she could summon a weapon. Her hand tingled the way it did when she fell asleep with it under her head and woke to discover the circulation had been cut off for far too long. Magic flared, bright and hot, a shimmering, sparking sphere around her hand. It coalesced and then grew into a long, straight line that started at her palm and shot into the air. She held a sword in her hand. She very nearly dropped it, so surprised was she by what just happened. The shifter gave a visible start when he saw the weapon. He took a hasty step away. “I have never seen a female Lightbearer conjure a sword before,” he commented, his gaze riveted to her face. “I do not think one ever has before,” she admitted before she could catch herself. The long piece of steel was getting heavy, and Sabine was afraid her hands would start shaking. She swung it experimentally. A mass of magical sparks, like swirling snow during a storm, trailed in its wake. The shifter widened the distance between them. “Then you’ve never used one before.” She swung again. It felt so right. Far better than draping a basket from her arm and picking berries. “Perhaps not, but as you can see, I seem to be adjusting rather quickly.” “I do see that.” He eyed the sword, his facial features giving away his trepidation mixed with reluctant awe. Before she could wrap her mind around just what that meant, she caught the brief flicker of his gaze to a point behind her. She did not hesitate nor think. She grasped the sword in both hands and swung, spinning ’round on one slippered foot at the same time. The tip of the sword hit something solid. Sabine’s magic surged, making her physically stronger than normal, ensuring the sword sliced through whatever it had come into contact with. The second shifter fell to the ground in a heap, clutching at his profusely bleeding abdomen. Sabine leaped away from him and turned back to the first one. He was, at this point, the far more dangerous of the two. “It would seem Carlos has come to the end of his Lightbearer hunting days.” “Not soon enough,” Sabine snapped. “Now it’s your turn.” The shifter lifted his lips in a rueful smile and shook his head. “I think not.” Before Sabine could so much as blink, he shifted into a fox and rushed away through the undergrowth. She stared after him for long seconds, as reluctantly impressed with the act of shapeshifting as he had appeared to be with her sword-summoning skills. A sound caused her to turn back to the other shifter, who was attempting to crawl away. With adrenaline surging through her system, Sabine stabbed him where she presumed his heart was. Emotions took over as she jerked the sword from his body and stabbed him again and again, taking out her anger and frustration. She stopped only when she was breathless and exhausted and could scarcely lift the weapon one more time. And she stood there for a long time, staring at the dead, mutilated body, until she realized how dark it had become. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, Sabine wiped her sword in the sand at her feet and lifted it to let it rest on her shoulder as she went in search of her dead friend. She would return the body to the coterie for a proper death ritual. Chapter 2 Sabine had been summoned by the king. It was a first for her. So many firsts in the last two days. As per the way former kings had ruled, their leader would hardly notice someone like her, who was relatively low in the coterie’s pecking order. She dragged her feet and took as much time as she dared as she made her way through the maze of corridors that would eventually lead her to the private chamber belonging to the King of the Lightbearers. Sabine had only lived twenty summers, yet her people had spent countless years as nomadic beings, and as a result had learned to create these basic, efficient dwellings wherever they attempted to settle. Each and every one knew that at the first sign of a shifter, they would pack up and leave again. When the current king took over last summer, he had led them south to central Mesoamerica. Purely by chance, they had come across the carved-out cliffs alongside a small riverbed. A quick inspection told them the structures had been abandoned for some time, and another inspection led them to believe no other beings were settled in the immediate area. So they had declared the cave within the cliffs their home and set about making it as comfortable as possible, using both magic and the natural resources at their fingertips. The cave offered protection from the heat of the day and the infrequent rainstorms, but they also depleted a Lightbearer’s magic, as once someone stepped inside, they were entirely cut off from the sun’s regenerating rays. And Lightbearers required a steady dose of sunlight in order to live. Sabine knew the king, of course. The coterie was small, and the numbers dwindled each time the shifters caught up with them, so it was impossible not to at least see him in passing on occasion. She knew he was young, only a few summers older than herself, and had been in the position for less than a year, having taken over when his uncle, the previous king, had been killed by shifters. He was also quite attractive, would have been considered so even before he ascended to the throne. And he was a gentleman. He was polite to the ladies and always willing to lend a hand to someone in need, as she well knew. He had also, upon becoming king, carried on his predecessors’ game plan, and had led the Lightbearers from their previous home to these cliffs in this warm, sunny climate. “I presume you aren’t waiting for an invitation, since you were summoned, which ought to be invite enough.” Sabine blinked rapidly; the world came into focus, and she realized she was standing before the entrance to king’s private chamber. He lounged in the doorway, looking surprisingly at ease, with a teasing smile playing at his lips. Quite handsome lips. They were full and soft, and a dimple bloomed into being in his left cheek when he smiled. Sabine’s heart sped up to a gallop, and it had nothing to do with the reason for the summons. Or perhaps it did. She attempted a curtsy and somehow managed to snag the edge of her dress. The action propelled her forward, toward the king. He opened his arms and caught her, pulling her flush against his body, holding her there for long seconds. Finally, he released her and stepped away, turning slightly to the side and motioning for her to step into his chamber, without meeting her eye. A swath of sunlight blinded her for a moment, distracting her from the awkward interaction. She lifted her hand to protect her eyes while at the same time her body soaked up the rejuvenating rays. “How is that possible?” she blurted. They had to be near the very center of the labyrinth of caves in which they had made their home. If there was a hole in the ceiling of this chamber, it struck her as incredibly dangerous to have their king sleeping here, in the dark, at his most vulnerable. Although a quick peek through her eyelashes told her she could not imagine this man being vulnerable at all. He radiated as much strength and confidence as the shifter she had encountered the day before. Xander, his friend had called him. “It’s quite genius, if I do say so myself,” the king said, as he stepped up next to her and pointed at the area through which the sun was shining. “A series of looking glasses. That hole does not lead directly outside, but there are many cracks and crevices hardly big enough to allow a mouse entrance. It took me a while to manipulate them with my magic, but eventually I was able to set them up so that they reflect off one another and the sun outside, allowing me the ability to regenerate even when I am holed up in here, trying to solve our seemingly never-ending shifter problem.” “That really is quite impressive.” Sabine flushed and quickly stammered, “I mean, of course it is. What else would one expect from a king?” “The ability to protect his people, for one thing. Come, sit.” He indicated a ladder-back wooden chair in front of a sturdy, simply designed desk in the far corner. Once she was seated, he strode around the desk and sat in the more comfortable looking leather armchair, but immediately shot to his feet, a chagrined look on his face. “Would you prefer this one? I know that is not a comfortable seat.” Sabine shook her head. “I am fine. Really.” He apparently decided not to argue with her, but he did use his magic to summon a feathered-filled pillow from the sofa situated almost directly under the shaft of light. It bumped against Sabine’s shoulder, and she laughed as she grabbed it and placed it on the chair before seating herself again. “Happy now?” She was amazed she could be so relaxed while alone with the king in his chamber, yet she could not help it. He apparently had a knack for putting others at ease. “Immensely.” He gathered the pile of scrolls sprawled haphazardly on the desk, leaving the largest document lying flat before them. It was a drawing of the Americas. Stars had been crudely drawn onto the map in various places, and it took Sabine a moment to determine they represented the many places Lightbearers had temporarily settled until the shifters found them once again. “Are you thinking the same thing I am?” the king asked after he deposited the scrolls on the floor behind his chair. Sabine looked up. “I am not sure, your grace.” “James. I insist. Tell me about your expedition to the berry patch yesterday.” He knew. How much he knew, she was not sure. When she had returned, carrying a sword and dragging Maria’s dead body, there had been a flurry of activity, as Lightbearers poured from the cave to greet her. Maria’s sister began shrieking and threw herself upon the decimated body. A male Lightbearer Sabine barely knew dropped to his knees and wept, talking between sobs about how he had intended to ask Maria to be his mate. A group of men who acted as though they were in charge had pulled the body from Sabine’s grasp and carried it away, trailed by various friends and relatives and other onlookers, while one man stayed and questioned her about the sword she had still clutched in her hand. The rest had been a blur as the reality of what had happened finally hit her, and Sabine had fallen into a shocked stupor. A healer led her to her own small chamber, performed her healing magic, and apparently added a sleeping spell, because the next thing Sabine remembered, she woke in her bed, wearing a thin dressing gown. When she pulled on a dress and laced up a dark blue overlay and left her chamber to seek the sun’s rays, she discovered it was mid-morning and the king wanted to see her as soon as she was able. “Maria and I found it by accident. We hadn’t meant to wander so far away from the coterie.” Her eyes welled with tears; that had been the last time her friend would harass her into doing what was supposed to be her job. “Do you want to talk about it?” the king asked in a gentle voice. Sabine shrugged. “Tell me about Maria. I did not know her well.” Despite the pain of losing her friend, Sabine couldn’t help the smile pulling at her lips. “Maria took pity on me, initially, but eventually we became the dearest of friends. She was exceptionally good at gathering food and had an abundance of patience for me. Food gathering and cooking are not tasks at which I excel, even though it is my responsibility within the coterie.” “Perhaps you do not try hard enough.” Sabine bristled. “I have. I do.” She shot to her feet and paced to the shaft of sunlight. “Not all Lightbearers are perfect.” He remained seated at the desk, his hands flat on the wooden surface. “No, we are not. None of us are.” He lifted one hand, palm facing out, when she opened her mouth to speak. “Not even your king, so do not say it. If I were perfect, Maria would not be dead, and the shifters would not have found us.” She closed her mouth, having no retort to his words. After a moment’s pause, he waved at the chair, indicating she should resume sitting. Reluctantly, she left the regenerating bit of sunlight and sat across from him. “You do not wish to be a food gatherer. What do you wish to be?” Confident. “I want to do something that helps the coterie, and that I’m good at.” The king leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Fair request.” “But that is not how it works. My mother is a food gatherer, as was her mother. My destiny is to mate with someone of my same station and continue in my parents’ footsteps.” A dark cloud crossed his face, but then he shook his head and it was gone. “As you know—or at least, you were taught in your studies—some member of my family has ruled our people since the fae sent us to this world, five hundred years ago.” He waited for her nod before he continued. “For the first hundred years, we lived in relative peace. It took the shifters a while to determine they wanted our magic. My great-grandfather’s theory was that at some point, a shifter witnessed a Lightbearer’s death, saw the flare of light that occurs when we die, and connected that to a release of magic. From there, the idea was formed that they could somehow collect or inherit our magic when we died. “Still, the risk was minor, at first, as shifters lived in packs, but they were not organized beyond that. They did not make it a point to associate with other packs, share knowledge—or, in this case—legends. The spread of the rumor that to kill us is to inherit our magic has been slow. Unfortunately, now, it is such a widespread belief, it seems we cannot escape the murdering bastards.” This time, it was he who surged to his feet and stormed across the chamber to the seam of sunlight. Bathed in the light, he made a beautiful image, looking like one of the golden-haired angels humans whispered of. Sabine’s lower abdomen clenched in a not unpleasant way. She had an urge to follow him, to wrap her arms around him, to support him, to offer to do whatever she could to help him find a solution to their frustrating shifter problem. She was so surprised by her own desires, she clutched the seat of the chair as if to keep herself seated, and blinked owlishly, while he paced to and fro. “Is it true you summoned a sword yesterday?” He stopped moving and watched her, an intense look on his face. She felt a flush creep up her chest and cover her face, and she dropped her gaze to her lap, allowing her hair to fall forward to hide the signs of her embarrassment. Her body jerked when he touched her, grasping her arms and pulling her to her feet. Warmth spread through her, a curious sensation that caused her nipples to harden. She fought the urge to squirm, and lifted her face to look him in the eye. Just as she had vowed not to cower before the shifters, so she determined not to in front of her king. “Why are you embarrassed?” he demanded. “Is it true?” She paused and then nodded. “I was—I did not want to die.” “I do not want any of us to die, at least not until we are old and have lived full lives. Why are you so uncomfortable with this subject?” Sabine cleared her throat and admitted the truth. “I do not want to disappoint you. Or my parents. Or anyone within the coterie. My job is to gather food.” “We have already established you are no good at that job, nor do you wish to do it. Yet, the healer tells me you had a sword in your hand when you returned to the coterie last night.” He tugged her toward the shaft of sunlight that was steadily creeping across the room. “Can you do it again?” He sounded as eager as a child wishing to play with a new toy. He released her arms and grasped her hands. “I—I am not sure. I did not do it deliberately. It was—I think it happened because I was angry. And frightened. But I am so tired of running. I wanted to fight. If I was going to die, I did not want to do it while running away. I wanted to face my adversary head on. I wanted—” Magic flared again, a glowing globe around their hands. They both stared at it, transfixed, until it faded. “So few of the males in the coterie have the ability to summon a sword,” the king whispered, while still watching their entwined fingers. “And yet I never thought to ask our females if they have the ability and might be interested in the task of protecting our people.” He gave her hands a shake. “Do it again.” “I told you, I did not do it deliberately. It just—” “It happens when your emotions are running high. What was it like? How did you escape?” Well, there was the one shifter who seemed more inclined to chat with her than kill her. And the one who murdered her friend, coming up behind her. “I killed one of them.” “One of them?” “There were two. The one I killed had already murdered Maria.” Magic flared again and coalesced into a ball of light, which then grew into a long, thin line. The king leaped away from her just as the light manifested into a sword. He stared at the object in Sabine’s hand for long seconds before his gaze lifted to her face. “Breathtaking,” he whispered. “May I?” He indicated the weapon. Sabine shrugged and handed it to him. He shifted it from hand to hand a few times before holding it in his right hand and twirling it ’round and ’round before he finally made several slashes and stabs, as if he were attacking his desk. “You have a natural ability,” she said. “I would not have been named king if I were not capable of conjuring as well as handling a sword.” He offered her the hilt. “How about you? Show me what you did when you killed the shifter.” He stepped behind his desk to watch from a safe distance. Sabine grasped the sword with both hands and swung it lengthwise, remembering the way it felt as the steel glided through the air, the jolt when it reached the shifter, the surge of magic her body automatically produced to help her pull the sword through her enemy’s flesh. Her magic flared again, and the sword swung ’round with such power she nearly lost her footing. The king hurried over and grasped her shoulders from behind. “Careful. That was quite impressive.” He did not release his hold and instead began a gentle massage. Sabine felt herself relax. A small sigh escaped and the sword disappeared. “You are able to control its disappearance?” he asked, his voice close to her ear. “I believe it has to do with my emotional state as well. When I no longer feel threatened or am able to relax, it disappears.” “You will be able to control it, with time. And practice.” What did he mean by that? She had not known what to expect when he asked about her ability to conjure a sword. If anything, she had assumed he would be angry with her for doing it, even if it had occurred in reaction to the appearance of the shifters. Instead he seemed pleased, impressed even. And the way he touched her back helped her to forget her trepidation as well as her sadness over losing her friend. It caused other reactions as well, internal ones, similar to how she felt when he cupped her face and healed her the day before. Except amplified. Her thighs warmed. Her nipples hardened. She wanted to turn around and kiss him. The king! He continued to knead her back, brushing her mane of hair over her shoulder so he could trail his fingers down her spine. It was the first time in her life a man had touched her so intimately. Sabine was not sure what to think, but she knew she did not want him to stop. “Have you been promised to another, Sabine?” He reached her lower back and began working his way up to her shoulders again. “I-I am not sure what you are asking, your grace.” He abruptly stopped the massage and turned her around to face him. When she would not meet his eye, he cupped her chin and forced her gaze up to catch with his own. “James. My name is James Bennett.” “I know your name, your grace.” Everyone in the coterie knew his given name. His uncle, the previous king, had taken a mate, but they had never produced children, so when he died last summer, James had been named king. “Say it, Sabine. Say my name.” She twisted her head, pulling her chin out of his grasp, and took a step away from him. “I do not understand what you want from me.” He followed, stepping close enough to touch her again. His touch did strange yet delicious things to her body. Her knees wobbled and she nearly fell forward into his arms. She wanted him to touch her, not just on her back, but in other places, places that ached for him. Her lips. Her breasts. The dark, wet place between her thighs. She took a chance and lifted her gaze. He stared at her so intently, it stole her breath. Magic sizzled between them, hot and potent, more so even than when she had summoned the sword. “I feel it, too,” he whispered, as if she had made the observation out loud. “May I kiss you, Sabine?” She had only ever been kissed by one man before, and he hadn’t asked, nor had she encouraged his affections. She was flattered the king asked, and yes, she desperately wanted him to kiss her. She must have murmured her acquiescence, because his smile widened, the dimple appeared, and then his face drew closer and closer, until his lips brushed against hers, and Sabine parted her own purely by instinct. He threaded his hands in her hair and held her tightly while slanting his mouth over hers, gently encouraging her tongue to play. Sizzling sensations shot through her body, weakening her knees further. She grasped his shirt sleeves, half afraid she would collapse to the ground, with no interest in ending the kiss. She wanted it to go on forever, yet she knew—not by personal experience, but by the instruction her mother had given her in preparation for one day taking a mate—that there was more to this aspect of a man and woman’s relationship. She marveled that this was happening at all, let alone with her king, a virile male she had, in her own naïve way, lusted after for longer than she cared to admit. Yet no matter how vivid her fantasies might have gotten, she had never dared to believe she would one day kiss him, literally, in the flesh. The shock of that caused her to turn her head to the side, breaking the kiss a scant moment before she heard the sound of boots slapping the stone floor of the corridor outside. The king let her go and took a step away just as another Lightbearer burst through the woven fabric that served as a door to his chamber. “Your grace,” the man said, gasping for breath between words. His gaze flicked over Sabine and there was a question in his eye, but he did not speak it out loud. Instead, he said, “There is a situation. A youngling has gone missing.” His gaze went to Sabine again. “We fear the shifters have found the coterie.” The king did not hesitate. “Pull together a search party. Find three of our strongest, most magically powerful warriors.” He glanced at Sabine. “The rest must stay here and prepare for a possible attack.” Sabine grabbed his sleeve. “Take me with you,” she said before she lost her nerve. “You are a female. You will only slow us down. And we will have to worry about protecting you as well,” the visitor proclaimed before the king could respond. Anger coursed through Sabine’s system and magic surged to her hand, forming a sword with almost no effort on her part. The other Lightbearer scrambled backward until his back was pressed against the wall, as far away from her as he could get and still be in the same room. His head whipped to and fro, glancing at Sabine and then the king and then back again. The king grinned and, ignoring the other man in the room, spoke to Sabine. “A small part of me would rather you stay here and protect the coterie.” “A rather large part of me thinks I should go with you and protect our king.” He laughed and then waved at the other Lightbearer. “Go. Gather the warriors. Time is of the essence if we have any hope of saving the youngling.” The man instantly obeyed and ran from the room. The king turned to Sabine again. “I am sick of running, Sabine. I am sick of my people getting killed, and each time it happens, we run away into the night, searching for yet another place to hide. I imagine even now half the coterie has already packed their belongings and are waiting for my dictate to leave. But I do not want to. Not that I am particularly attached to this area; I just no longer want to run.” Sabine sucked in a breath. “I feel the exact same way, your grace.” “James,” he chided. “Say it.” She stared into his eyes. “James.” It was the smallest whisper. It felt both foreign and yet right to speak to her king using his given name. Chapter 3 When the messenger interrupted their kiss, James’ first inclination had been to insist Sabine stay in his private chamber, surrounded by every warrior who would not be accompanying him to go search for the lost youngling. But as soon as the thought entered his head, he immediately banished it. Sabine Flemming was no simpering maiden, no wilting flower, no dainty, fearful female who expected the males in her life to protect her from danger. She faced the danger head on—and won. It may have only been one, but she had killed a shifter. James was certain no other female Lightbearer in history could make that claim. Her confidence, her attitude, her ability to conjure a sword all warmed his blood and sent it surging south to between his legs. He had not been able to resist touching her, massaging her back, kissing her. And he wanted to do it again. He wanted to do much, much more than kiss the fascinating female. “Social standing within the coterie is important, James.” His mother’s voice entered his head as clearly as if she had accompanied them on their trek to find the lost child. “You must choose wisely when it is time to take a mate. And to be honest, that time should be sooner than later. You are king now. You must carefully select the appropriate female and take her to mate and get her with child. A Bennett has worn the crown since we were banished to this world. It is your responsibility to ensure our family continues this responsibility. If you would like, I can offer my recommendations.” James almost snorted. He could well imagine his mother’s recommendations. Actually, he did not need to imagine. Collette, who walked with her nose perpetually in the air. Ginger, who was so thin and frail, he imagined the act of coupling might break her. Beatrice, who told anyone who would listen about her family lineage, and how the Yarrows had mated to more kings than any other family within the coterie. And then there was Wilma, who screamed when a bug crossed her path and then cried if someone squished it. He wanted nothing to do with his mother’s recommendations. The first time Sabine had caught his eye, she had been chiding her girlfriend for allowing her mate to dictate the color of the dress she had planned to wear. James had been fascinated with her despite the clear difference in their social standing within the coterie. When he had mentioned her to his mother, the woman had lectured him until he could take no more and had retired to his chamber to drink himself into a stupor. A curious sense of possession welled up within him when he and Sabine met with his men and James informed them she would accompany them in their search for the missing youngling. She was young and attractive, unique in that she was not artfully made up like most of the women in the coterie. Her hair was kinky and wild, her cheeks almost always flushed. She did not waste her magic on enhancements to her face or body, clearly preferring her natural self. And, naturally, she was a stunning beauty even while she was almost entirely hidden behind unrevealing clothing. The images that formed in his head of what she looked like when she stripped out of her dress made his shaft uncomfortably hard. His warriors had initially protested her inclusion, until she had summoned a sword and offered to spar. They had changed their stance, and James could tell their minds had wandered to the same dark and sexy place his had. He wanted to stride over and drape his arm across her shoulders, a blatant show of possession. He wanted to make it clear to these men who were looking at her with admiration and lust in their eyes that they could not have her, could not touch her. His own reaction amused him, because this was not a woman who would be possessed by anyone, not even her king. His second-in-command, Dirk Northwood, pointed his sword at James. “You should stay in the cave, where you are better protected, your grace. I will lead the men to find this youngling.” “I will not send my warriors to do anything I would not do myself. Besides,” he said, his lips quirking into a smile despite the circumstances, “Sabine will protect me.” The pride written on her face told him he’d pleased her. Perhaps he’d be rewarded with another kiss, when they returned to the coterie after this expedition. **** James stood behind her while Sabine questioned the missing youngling’s mother, to try to glean information as to where the child might have wandered off to. “My daughter loves berries,” Gilda said. “She was upset this morning when there were none left, and I can’t help wondering if she’s gone to where they grow to find more.” She grabbed Sabine’s arm. “Please find her. Please bring her back to me.” After that brief interaction, Sabine led James and the small group of warriors Dirk had put together along the bank of the snaking river that served as the coterie’s source of water. Her guilt radiated off her in palpable waves. He touched her arm to draw her attention. “You could not have saved Maria. Do not blame yourself for her death. If you need someone to blame, blame your king.” “You think you could have saved her?” “Our numbers have been shrinking for decades. If we continue along the same path carved by my predecessors, we will be extinct before the turn of the next century. I have been king for nearly a year and have done nothing to change that track.” “A year is not very long. And what would you have done?” “I am not sure. But now…” He touched her arm again. “I feel as though there is hope. It’s the first time since I placed the crown upon my head.” They fell silent for a short while, until they veered away from the stream and followed a trail leading through a field of grass so tall it brushed against his hips as he walked. ‘The shifter referred to us as lambs to his wolf. The one who ran away.” “I cannot tell you how impressive I find it that you convinced a shifter to flee.” “Well, he did not run in that sense. To tell you the truth, I believe he simply decided not to kill me. Even when I had a sword in my hand, I had the impression he was not afraid.” “Even more extraordinary that you survived,” he commented. But why would a shifter, as Sabine claimed, simply leave, instead of kill her? The excursion to the berry patch was uneventful. And much to James’s relief, they found the lost youngling standing next to a bush, heavy with ripened fruit, her face, hands, and the front of her dress stained red. She was blissfully unaware of any potential danger, and was not pleased when her king insisted she go back to the coterie, flanked by three large men bearing magical swords. As they headed back the way they came, James noticed Sabine’s guilt had shifted to wariness. He found it fascinating he could sense her emotions. He had heard of such a thing between mated Lightbearers who shared a love match but had never experienced it firsthand, of course. His mother invaded his thoughts, reminding him he should not be captivated by Sabine, should not have lustful thoughts about her. She was a peasant; he was king. They each had their place, their roles within the coterie, and those roles did not overlap, at least not quite in the way James would prefer. The river made a sharp bend to the east, and the warriors and child disappeared from view. James and Sabine walked side by side, swords at the ready. A shadow moved, and then a man stepped onto the path. Sabine stopped short and James heard her suck in a breath. He tried to move between her and the other man. A shifter. He had long, shaggy, dark hair, and dark skin, and stood at least six feet tall. “Xander,” he heard Sabine whisper. “Ah, you remember my name. How flattering. Who is your protector, Lightbearer?” In an unsurprising fashion, Sabine lifted her chin and said, “I do not need a protector.” She hefted her sword, clearly prepared to do battle. The shifter chuckled and circled around them. With his left arm, James reached for Sabine, pulling her to him, so they were back to back. Fear for her safety mingled with relief that she understood he meant for them to be a united front against their enemy. “I could have killed you yesterday, you know. Your pointy toy does not scare me,” the shifter remarked. Sabine waited until he circled close enough, and then she slashed out at him. He leaped out of harm’s way and scowled. “You test my patience, Lightbearer.” “The feeling is mutual.” “How about we make a deal? I won’t kill you and your would-be protector if you give me your magic.” “What makes you think she can give you her magic?” James asked. The shifter pointed at Sabine. “She did. She told me as much, just yesterday.” James glanced at Sabine. Had she really told this man she could share her magic? Why would she do such a thing? She shook her head. “I did not. I told him killing us did not steal our magic.” The shifter tapped his temple. “And I am a smart shifter who managed to put together the facts. While killing you does not share your magic, there is clearly some other way. You show me the way, and I leave you to your nomadic little Lightbearer lives.” “No,” James shouted before Sabine had a chance to reply. Lightbearer magic was finite, and the sun’s rays renewed it each morning. If she agreed to share hers with this shifter, she would be weakened immediately to the point of no longer able to protect herself, and who was to say the animalistic being would not go back on his promise? Besides that, the idea of a shifter having Lightbearer magic was a frightening concept. Shifters were evil, the enemy. If they gained Lightbearer magic, they would surely destroy the coterie and kill every inhabitant far more quickly and efficiently than they have been working on thus far. “You are only one shifter,” Sabine said. “And it does not appear you travel with a pack. If I share my magic with you, you may very well leave us in peace, but what about the rest of them?” The shifter shrugged. “Not my concern.” “Sabine, you cannot possibly—” “Enough.” The shifter cut him off. “Give me your magic or die. It is as simple as that.” “Not quite that simple,” Sabine said, and she lunged, catching the shifter by surprise. She managed to nick him with her sword before he scrambled out of range. He looked down at the bleeding wound on his arm. When he glanced up again, his eyes glowed. James opened his mouth to tell Sabine to run, but it was too late. Before James could so much as blink, the man turned into a wolf. The wolf snarled once and then attacked, but it did not attack Sabine as James was expecting. It attacked him. Chapter 4 Sabine watched in horror as the shifter charged at James, reaching him before the king could lift his sword to defend himself. The animal twisted to the side at the last second, slammed into James’s legs, and knocked him off his feet. It immediately turned around and leaped onto James’s chest, clearly intending to bite him. Sabine shouted and rushed toward the animal, her sword drawn. It scurried out of the way and when she swung, she hit only air. Glancing down, she saw that although James was still alive, the wolf had sliced him across the abdomen and bit his arm. His sword lay in the dirt next to him, useless. “Run,” he said, looking up at Sabine. “Save yourself. I declare you Queen of the Lightbearers. Take them away from this place, for their immediate safety. Once you have settled somewhere new, train them to protect themselves. All of them. Women and children, too. You can do it, Sabine. I know you can.” The emotions that were all but slapping her in the face were not her own. Sadness, worry, and something foreign to her. Love? Was that even possible? While they had lived in the coterie together for their entire lives, she and James had had a total of three interactions and shared one searing kiss. It was not possible the king was in love with her… was it? A growl caused her to whip around. The wolf stood several feet away, watching her. “All running does is excite them more,” she stated, speaking more to herself than to James. At that moment, she made a decision. She would not run. She would fight. She would protect the king. She would get him back to the coterie, alive, so the healers could tend to him, so he could continue on as their leader. She’d be lousy at the job, anyway. She might be able to stand by his side one day, but she had no interest in actually taking over. “You beast,” she seethed, and she charged at the shifter, who danced away as if he were toying with her. She continued to attack, while he continued to stay just out of reach. She did not let up, conscious of the fact they were moving farther away from the king. She hoped to keep the shifter distracted long enough that James could drag himself to safety. The wolf twisted to the right, as if he intended to run that way, and at the last second, he shunted left and rushed around behind her. Fearful he was going after the king, she turned around to lay chase and ran into a rock hard wall, which, upon closer inspection, was a chest, covered by a thin linen shirt. She lifted her gaze and looked into the face of the shifter who had been a wolf a moment ago. While she was still recovering from the shock of him standing so close, he covered her sword hand with his own and held it there, ensuring she could not use her weapon. She struggled, but he was far too strong. “It seems we have a predicament,” he said in his strangely accented voice. She gave her hand another fruitless jerk. “Yes. You won’t let me go so I can run you through with my sword.” He laughed. “How can I possibly kill you, Lightbearer, when you are so utterly charming?” She ceased struggling and stared at him. “You aren’t going to kill me?” “I haven’t yet decided. If there is a way for you to give me your magic without doing so, I am not opposed to that option.” Based on the emotions she’d felt from James when the shifter had first suggested she give him her magic, the king was vehemently opposed to the idea, which led Sabine to believe she should not do it, even if it meant losing her own life. “I’ve just had an epiphany. I think I know how you do share your magic.” Sabine had an urge to run but was not able as he still held her hand captive around her sword. Using that connection, he pulled her close so quickly, she stumbled over her feet and fell into his chest again. With his other hand, he grasped her chin, lifted her face, and kissed her. It was nothing like the king’s kiss. The shifter was rough and demanding, the hair on his face course against her skin. She hated the feel of him, the taste of him. He was her mortal enemy. He had undoubtedly killed friends of hers, probably relatives. A great roar came from behind her, and the shifter pushed her away. She landed on her knees in the dirt and turned her head in time to see the king staggering toward Xander, sword in hand, his clothes soaked with blood, magic glowing around his hands, fury in his eyes. The shifter changed forms, back to a wolf, and prepared to attack. Sabine scrambled to her feet and screamed, “No! Stop!” Both men—well, the king and the wolf—paused to look at her. “A deal,” she said, talking fast. “I will strike a deal. I swear it.” “No,” James said. “I forbid it.” The wolf shifted back into human form. “I am listening,” he said, ignoring the king. “I will give you magic. On one condition.” “Which is?” “No,” James insisted again. Sabine and the shifter both ignored him. “We will leave, find a new place to live. And you will never seek us out again. And you will tell your fellow shifters the legend is not true. However you must do it, convince them we cannot share our magic. If you do not agree, or if you do and I learn you do not keep your side of the bargain, I will pull my magic back.” Xander eyed her with a mix of interest and trepidation. “You can do that?” “Yes.” Her voice did not waver, and she did not break eye contact. The less he knew about the magic she intended to give him, the better. Especially the fact that, if she shared it with him, he too would have the ability to share it with others. She was playing a risky game and she knew it. But the chance was worth it. She had never been so certain of anything in her entire life. “I cannot promise they will listen.” “Make them.” Long seconds passed with no sound save those of nature and the belabored breathing of all three beings. Finally, finally, the shifter nodded once. “You have my word.” Chapter 5 Prior to a few days ago, James had considered himself a patient man. And then Sabine had blazed her way into his life. Any modicum of patience he once possessed had been tossed over the edge of the cliff in which the coterie was situated. He paced his chamber, waiting for her to make her appearance, and knowing damn well she was deliberately taking her time. He knew because he could feel her, damn it. Or at least her emotions. And her emotional state was conflicted. She knew he was angry, but she was convinced she had done the right thing by giving the shifter her magic. The problem was, James couldn’t exactly say he disagreed. If she had said no, he was certain the shifter would have killed him, if not both of them. Sharing her magic had saved his life, of that he had no doubt. She had possibly saved the entire coterie. She had given them a future, the opportunity to live in peace. So why was he so bloody angry? It was the kiss. The fury he’d felt had been enough to propel him to his feet, despite the blood he’d lost, the pain that had him fading in and out of consciousness. He’d staggered toward them with only one goal: to kill the man who dared kiss his queen. “What in the world?” James swung around, expecting to see Sabine standing in the doorway to his private chamber, even though he knew the shrill voice was not hers. “Mother.” He resisted sighing as anticipation switched to annoyance in a matter of seconds. The woman who had birthed him and to this day insisted upon trying to manage his life glided toward him in her smooth, manicured glory. Not a strand of white-blonde hair was out of place, not a wrinkle would ever be seen in the woman’s dress. Her brows were perfectly arched, her lips a shade of pale pink complimentary to her skin tone. She cupped his cheek and he felt the telltale sign of her healing magic. He pushed her hand away. “I am fine. Selma has already tended to me.” “She did a fine job. She is not mated, is she? Perhaps she would be a—” “Do not start. Not now. Preferably not ever, but I am particularly not in the mood right now.” She crossed her arms and frowned, and he turned away, strode over to the cabinet near his desk, poured a hefty splash of milky, white pulque into a glass and tipped it to his lips. How his mother did not notice she constantly drove him to drink, he did not understand. “Why are you so upset? I believe this might have been the first time ever we escaped a shifter attack with absolutely no casualties. Although I presume you will soon give the directive that we must pack up and leave.” If the shifter with whom Sabine had shared her magic was to be believed, they no longer had to flee. “I am not sure yet. Maybe not.” “What do you mean? While I am thrilled no one was killed, I do not for a moment believe it was not purely luck, and a Lightbearer’s luck runs dangerously thin when shifters are present. I will alert the coterie and begin to make preparations at—” She broke off when Sabine pushed aside the cloth covering the door and stepped into the chamber. Her kinky blonde hair was as unruly as ever, her dress looked as if she might have slept in it, and her eyes were stormy. She was ready for battle—with or without swords. He, on the other hand, could not decide if he wanted to lash out at her or toss her onto the bed in the next room and ravish her until they fell into an exhausted sleep together. Neither of which was an appropriate response with his mother standing in the middle of the room, staring at Sabine as if she were a particularly repulsive bug. “What do you think you are doing, barging into your king’s chamber without so much as an announcement of your presence and a request to enter?” his mother demanded of the breathtakingly beautiful woman. “Responding to my king’s summons,” Sabine replied. Yes, he most certainly wanted to kiss her. His mother, on the other hand, looked as if she would like to summon a sword of her own and run it through Sabine’s guts. The older woman turned to him, her eyes as stormy as Sabine’s. “You summoned this woman? Why?” “He is the king. As such, he does not even need a reason.” James almost laughed at the woman’s audacity. His mother’s face reddened and she sputtered, clearly unable to formulate a proper response. “Why, I never—” “Mother, please excuse us. I have business to discuss with Sabine.” His mother’s eyes narrowed. “Sabine? The female who summoned a sword and killed a shifter?” Rumors spread like wildfire within the coterie. ‘The one,” he said. The elder woman managed to compose herself. She straightened her back, unnecessarily smoothed the front of her dress, and nodded curtly at he and Sabine in turn, before sweeping from the room in a style fit for a queen. Perhaps that was why she was determined he should mate with a particular type of woman. Someone like her, since she had never had the privilege of calling herself Queen. After she left, he lifted his glass, silently asking Sabine if she would like a drink. Few female Lightbearers drank the pungent, heady liquid without diluting it with berry juice, but Sabine was not like any other females of his acquaintance. She shook her head and then indicated his fresh linen shirt and clean brown pants. “I see a healer has tended to you, your grace.” He touched his chest where the wounds inflicted by the shifter were no more than fading red marks. “Yes. She insisted I should relax for the rest of the day as well. And stop calling me ‘your grace.’” She arched one blonde brow and pursed her lips. “Fine.” To hell with trying to play nice. “You clearly want to fight. Let’s do it, then.” Surprise flickered across her face. “I did not say—” “You gave him your magic.” “Enough to appease him, yes. But not enough for him to ever use it against us.” “It doesn’t matter. What if he figures out how to make it grow? What if he figures out how to share it with others of his kind?” “He will not.” Her utter confidence infuriated him further. How could she be so confident, unless she had some connection to the other being? James strode across the room, while Sabine held her ground, her chin lifted, her gaze defiant. She had no fear of him. It was a strangely arousing reaction. “You kissed him.” He spat the words, stopping so close to her that his erratic breathing ruffled the hair around her face. He could see the storm swirling in her eyes, the flush in her cheeks, the way her bosom rose and fell with each angry breath. “He kissed me,” she protested. “You did not pull away.” That was the crux of it. She had not attempted to break free of the kiss. “It was as if you enjoyed it.” Admitting as much out loud made him feel vulnerable. A king did not admit to his fears, not to anyone, except perhaps his mate. “You cannot speak for my feelings,” she said, and James’s deflated feeling turned into a painful, festering wound where his heart should be. She turned away and strode to the sofa, sat, and immediately leaped to her feet again, clenching and unclenching her fists. She appeared to be struggling with some internal demon. “I have been kissed three times in my entire life. The first was Brody, whose breath could have knocked me over it was so hideous. All I felt was an overwhelming need to get as far away from him as possible. The second was you. And it was so very different from that first experience, I had no idea what to do. I wanted—I wanted to do other things. And yet I wanted the kiss to last forever. The third was the shifter. When he kissed me, I had expected him to try to kill me, and I was too startled to immediately pull away. And no, I did not enjoy it,” she snapped, as if she knew he was about to ask. “The only kiss of the three I wish to repeat is the one I shared with you.” She threw her hands into the air and paced to the wall and back. James was dumbfounded. “You—you want to kiss me again?” She glanced at him through her lashes. He liked the way the flush of her cheeks spread down to the teasing expanse of skin above the neckline of her dress. He wanted to lift his hand, stroke it along the latticed edge of the material, then down, to tug at the ties hiding her breasts from him. His body hardened. Anticipation was thick in the air, and he knew it was not entirely his own. Yet he could not quite let go of his anger and frustration. Not yet. “There is a connection between you and the shifter. Especially now that you’ve shared your magic. And we both know, despite what you said to him, you cannot take it back.” Her shoulders straightened, her spine stiffened. “I did what I felt I had to do, to save you. Whatever connection there may be between myself and the shifter, it is not his emotions I feel right now.” Something inside James snapped. He needed to touch her. His magic flared, drawing her gaze to his hands as they reached for her. Her eyes widened, but she did not step away. He wrapped one arm around her back and slid the other under her knees and lifted her off her feet. She made a sound of surprise and grabbed his shoulders while staring into his face. “What are you doing?” Her voice was a whisper. He strode toward the bedchamber. “The healer told me I should spend the rest of the day in bed. I suspect you were told the same thing. Seems to me we should follow their instructions.” Chapter 6 Sabine did not know what to do, what to say. The king of the Lightbearers had carried her into his sleeping chamber, laid her on the softest, fullest feather bed she had ever experienced, and now stood over her, watching her intently, as if he were waiting for something, although she could not imagine what. She had never been in this situation before. It took her shocked brain long moments to comprehend what he intended. He intended for them to couple, in the way mates did. A shiver of excitement coursed through her body, warming the pit of her belly so much, she squirmed. His eyes flared and a vein in his neck pulsed. “I … Have you ever…” She could not formulate the words. His neck reddened, and he averted his gaze. “I have. My fourteenth summer, my uncle arranged it. He said a future king should know how to pleasure his queen in the bedchamber. He said it would likely be the only aspect of ruling I would enjoy.” She giggled, thinking of the things her girlfriends had whispered about their experiences with their mates. “I do like the idea of being pleasured, although I am no queen.” He dropped to his knees on the bearskin rug next to the bed and placed his hands on either side of her hips. She pushed up onto her elbows so she could look him in the face. “You are the queen, remember? I declared you as such.” He touched her arm, trailed his fingers down to her hand. She shivered again. “I would like you to take me as your king, your grace.” Sabine laughed and fell back against the quilt. James climbed onto the bed and straddled her thighs, looking down at her with a mock glare on his face. “Are you laughing because you intend to declare another as your mate?” She sobered, her eyes widening as she stared up at him. “My mate?” “Well, generally, a king and queen are mated. In fact, I have never heard of it otherwise.” Sabine turned her head to the side, refusing to meet his gaze. “I am not a queen.” “Must we go through this again?” “I can not even gather berries properly. I make a mess of anything I touch in the kitchen. I am not—not worthy.” “Then we shall keep you out of the kitchen. We have plenty of cooks in the coterie. What we do not have an abundance of are strong, able-bodied, natural warriors who can summon swords and frighten off shifters and live to tell the tale. By my estimation, that makes you far more worthy than the ability to collect berries or cook.” He cupped her face and leaned down, and for a moment, Sabine thought he would kiss her. But he stopped just shy of brushing his lips against hers. Her breath caught in her throat and her body arched, her breasts straining against the bodice of her dress. His gaze darted down and then lifted back to her face. “Mate with me, Sabine. Be my queen.” She hesitated. “I am afraid.” “Of what?” “That I will fail.” “You have already succeeded.” He lowered himself to the bed so that his body pressed against hers. She felt the unmistakable hardness everywhere but especially in one spot. Her legs parted, allowing him to nestle between them. He rolled his hips, and his rigid shaft rubbed against the area between her thighs. She did not fully understand what it meant, only that when he made contact there, it helped ease the growing ache. She wiggled and he groaned, dropping his arm and clutching her hip, holding her still. “And you will succeed far more quickly than either of us is ready for if you continue to do that. Let me show you what it is like between mates, Sabine. Let me show you what it will always be like between us.” She could no longer think. She could only feel. Her body demanded a release she did not even understand. “Show me,” she whispered. He kissed her. It was featherlight at first, but that lasted only a moment, because she grasped his hair and pulled him closer, parting her lips and silently demanding more. He slanted his lips over hers, thrust his tongue into her mouth, and teased her tongue into a sensual dance she understood to mimic the act of coupling. It was even better than the first time. Would it get better and better each time she kissed the king? She certainly looked forward to finding out. While he kissed her, he rolled his hips, a steady, constant action that created friction right where she needed it most. Sabine arched into his touch, finding his rhythm, until they moved together in sync and she panted, her heart speeding up, her movements becoming more and more frantic. James abruptly rolled away, lying on his back next to her, breathing as heavily as she was. “Is… Is something wrong? Have I—did I do it wrong?” While the interaction had certainly felt good thus far, she felt as though it wasn’t quite finished, like they hadn’t completed whatever race they had been running. “No.” He reached for her hand and lifted it to his lips, kissing her knuckles before saying, “It’s far too right. I needed a moment to regain my bearings. I was about to spill my seed in my drawers, which would not have done anything at all for you. And as I said earlier, this is meant to be for your pleasure.” “Why can you not feel pleasure?” Her girlfriends whispered of their mates finding gratification sometimes even when they did not. He chuckled. “Pleasuring you gives me infinite satisfaction. I promise.” He rolled to his side and tugged at the laces on her overlay. Once he had them untied, he trailed his finger down her chest, plucking at the ribbons like they were strings on a harp, loosening them further, until he was able to pull the garment off. She lay there wearing a white dress with a scoop neck and puffy sleeves, and nothing else. She wanted the dress off, she wanted his hands on her bare skin. If they sent her body to tingling when all he did was tug at the ribbons of her overlay, she could only imagine what they would feel like without the impediment of clothing. “I want you to touch me,” she whispered, feeling far more brave than she thought she should. He arched his brows. “My skin. Under the dress. Without the dress.” Now she sounded the fool, blathering, unable to truly explain what she wanted, mostly because she was not sure what she was asking for. One side of his lips lifted into a half smile, while his lids dropped over his eyes, giving him a drunken look. “I believe I can accommodate you, my queen.” Strange how quickly she was becoming accustomed to that title, although the thought disappeared when he skirted his hand over her dress, down, until he reached the hem and then slid his fingers underneath and cupped her ankle. She hissed out a breath, the touch far more intimate than anything she had experienced thus far. When he trailed his hand up her bare leg, she threw her head back and squeezed her eyes shut, her entire body tensing. “Breathe, my sweet,” he whispered. Sabine slowly exhaled and her eyes fluttered open. He watched her face while his hand continued to move up her leg. When his fingers danced over her upper thigh, they both widened their eyes. “You aren’t wearing pantaloons.” “I was in bed when you summoned me.” She was amazed she was capable of speaking at this point, especially since his fingers continued to stroke her thigh, leaving sizzling magic and sensation in their wake. His lid drooped again. “Hmm. I like it when you are in bed.” He pushed the material of her skirt up until it bunched at the top of her thighs, and then he dropped a kiss onto her leg. She moaned. He lifted his head and smiled. “I think I will want you here as often as possible.” He returned to kissing her leg. “I … You have a coterie to rule.” “We have a coterie to rule,” he countered between kisses. “And part of that responsibility is getting to know my mate better. Much, much better.” As he said the words, he lifted her skirts higher and higher, until he revealed that part of her that ached so badly, she could no longer define the line between pleasure and pain. Sabine held her breath and watched as he slid off the bed and knelt next to it. He then grasped her waist and pulled her closer to the edge, until her legs dangled over the side, her dress bunched halfway up her abdomen. Her woman’s area was right in front of his face. She tried to roll to the side, but he pressed his hands to the top of her thighs, holding her in place. “I have done this before, and it brought my partner unthinkable pleasure.” She watched in fascination as he leaned forward, as if he intended to kiss her where the coarse, curling hairs covered the area where she understood she was supposed to join with him. Her friends had whispered about pain the first time, pain during childbirth, but otherwise, this was the center of their pleasure. The ache, she had been reassured, would be relieved, and it would be beyond any gratification she had ever experienced in her life. Then James’s mouth touched her there; his tongue flicked out and licked once, twice, and then probed her, and Sabine cried out, clutched at the bedcovers, and arched nearly off the bed. Magic flared so brightly she briefly lit the chamber as though it were high noon and they were outside in the middle of a pasture, unimpeded by trees or anything else to block the sun’s regenerating rays. “Oh—Oh my—Oh.” She gasped when he did not stop. He lapped at her, licking and suckling for a few moments before thrusting his tongue into her again—and again and again. Her hips moved of their own accord, her entire body tensed, and she squeezed her eyes shut, sucking in quick, short, panting breaths. And then his hand snaked up her body, under her dress, and cupped her breast. Sabine exploded—or at least that’s what it felt like. Pleasure peaked, pouring up and out of her like a waterfall, leaving her exhausted and sated and gasping for air. She was certain her body could not move at that moment even if the bedcovers caught fire. James’s face appeared, swimming above her, and it took long seconds to realize he hovered over her, bracing himself on his hands and knees. “May I?” he said, and without waiting for an answer—which was good, as she was incapable at the moment—he pulled her dress over her head and tossed it to the floor, leaving her lying there completely nude, her body tingling and glowing more brightly than it ever had before. “I can tell you enjoyed it.” “Mmm.” He chuckled and shucked his shirt, sending it to rest near her dress. Her gaze dropped to watch as he unfastened his trousers. He paused. “Would you like to help?” Her eyes widened, and she considered it for a moment but then shook her head. She still felt boneless, and besides, she had never undressed a man before. She was not even sure she knew how, although he made it look quite easy. He did it quickly, too, as if he were eager to be in the same state of undress as she. Sabine stared at his manly parts. She had seen this aspect of a male’s anatomy before, on various animals, on babes, and once when she and Beatrice had snuck out to watch the men bathe in the river. This experience was far different from that one. Sabine had had little interest in the men bathing in the river, and now she understood it was because the king had not been one of them. And while his anatomy appeared not greatly different from the other men she’d seen that day, she was drawn to him, found him almost unbearably attractive. “Would you—would you like to touch it?” James suddenly sounded unsure of himself, as if he were afraid she would not be pleased. She almost laughed at such a ridiculous thought. “Do you want me to?” “Yes.” He was hopeful. She could feel it in her own head, and she knew it was his emotions, not hers. Sabine sat up and tentatively reached out, smoothing her fingers over the muscle on his hip that led straight to his bobbing appendage, almost like a guide. He closed his eyes and groaned, and stood so still, he might have been a statue. He liked her touch, and the knowledge made her brave. She touched the tip of him, where a drop of moisture had gathered. His body jerked. She paused a moment, and then trailed her fingers down the length of him, bringing the wetness with her, gradually becoming more and more comfortable until she stroked him, up and down, over and over, because she could tell he enjoyed the sensation. When his hips began to buck in rhythm to her movements, he covered her hand with his, forcing her to stop. She looked up at him, a question in her eye. “I need you.” His voice was harsh and cracked on the word need. “I need to feel you. I want to be inside you. I want to officially be mates.” It was a silly thing to say, in Sabine’s mind, because if the king decreed them as mates, then they were, whether they coupled or not. But he seemed to genuinely need this to happen, and the ache he had soothed a short time ago had returned. “I need you, too.” **** She said what he had dared to hope she would say. James’s heart swelled, along with another part of his body, the part that moments ago had been close to exploding, thanks to the feel of her hand stroking him. He pushed her higher on the bed so her legs no longer dangled over the side, and then he climbed up between her thighs, crawled up her body until he lay on top of her, his phallus nudging at her opening, his upper body propped up by his arms so he would not crush her. Her breasts rose and fell with her rapid breaths, and unable to resist, he bent his head and sucked one of her tempting rose-colored nipples into his mouth. She cried out and tangled her hands into his hair, pulling him closer, telling him without words she liked what he was doing. He flexed his hips, testing, not pressing into her but sliding through her wet outer lips, knowing he brushed against the bundle of nerves located there. She arched, a silent plea to do it again. He did, again and again, until they were both so slick with wetness that the next movement pushed him against her opening, and he almost entered her. He felt her body tense and he released her nipple so he could look into her face. “Ready?” “I’ve heard it hurts.” “Me, too,” he admitted. “I wish I could make it not so. But I will do everything I can to turn the pain to pleasure as quickly as possible.” “I would like that.” She offered a wobbly smile. He bent and kissed her, sweeping his tongue into her mouth, while at the same time flexing his hips again. She widened her legs and arched, and unable to hold back, he entered her, stretching her and pushing through the barrier marking her as untouched until now. “Sabine.” He whispered her name against her lips when she froze, her entire body tensing, pain and confusion flitting through her emotions. “Breathe. Focus on me, on us. The pain will subside.” His magic flared. He did not regularly use his healing magic, but he wished to take away her pain, and apparently, his magic was inclined to do as he wanted. As he pushed magic into her, he felt her relax, both her body and her mind. After long seconds, she sighed and then experimentally rolled her hips. He groaned as sensations that were anything but painful shot through his system. “You like that,” she said matter-of-factly. “Yes.” “Me, too.” She gave him an impish smile. He kissed her and gently pulled away and pressed into her again. She groaned against his mouth and scored her nails down his back. “Do it again,” she insisted. He was all too happy to comply. They found the rhythm that was as old as time, moving together in a sensual dance that became frantic, until she squeezed his buttocks and he clutched at her thigh and she demanded he move faster and faster, until she found her release a scant second before he lost all control and poured his seed into her. With a gusty sigh, he rolled onto his back, bringing her with him so that she lay splayed across his chest. And then he wrapped his arms around her and promptly fell asleep, satisfied, utterly pleased with his choice of mate. Chapter 7 Sabine surfaced from sleep rather abruptly. The chamber was so dark she could not even see James, who lay underneath her, still in slumber and gently snoring. Despite an inability to see anything, she sensed they were not alone. Before she could extract herself from her lover’s lax hold and summon a sword, magic flared across the room. A small blue sphere of light floated a few feet away, illuminating the face of Xander, the shifter to whom she had gifted her magic. She gasped. “Lightbearer magic is certainly handy.” Sabine, her heart pounding uncomfortably fast, slid off the bed and snagged her dress, covering herself as quickly as she could. “What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice a harsh whisper. “And how did you get in?” “Come,” he said, and he turned his back on her and walked toward the outer chamber. “I would rather not disturb your bedmate, if it’s all the same to you.” She trailed after him, and repeated her question once they had left the sleeping chamber. Xander pointed at the cracked, rocky ceiling. “The ability to shift into any form, including a mouse, also comes in handy.” “I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky you had not figured that out before I was able to summon a sword.” “No luck was involved. I was only able to determine the location of your coterie because you gave me your magic. Although, perhaps luck is involved, as I’ve come to give you both a warning and a solution.” He bowed, as if he’d already provided her with such and expected praise. When she did not react to his words or movements, he snapped out of his bow and glared at her through narrowed eyes. “I find you fascinating because you have spirit and an intriguing lack of fear. Now, you appear to have added confidence to that list of enticing attributes. I can only assume the king has declared you his mate.” He sounded cross—was he bitter about that fact? “Why should that matter to you?” “It shouldn’t.” He glanced at the dimming blue ball of light. “I do not suppose you could use your own magic to brighten the room? I’ve spent a great deal of my own this day, and fear I am about to run out, at least until the next sunrise.” Sabine did not hide her exasperation as she pulled on her own magic and created a second, brighter ball of light. The other winked out and Xander nodded. “I cannot give you more,” she warned. “You will have to learn to harness what you have.” “Oh, I shall. You may be assured of that fact.” She opened her mouth and he lifted his hand, palm facing out. “While I would thoroughly enjoy sparring with you all the remaining night, Lightbearer, I’m afraid there is not time. I’ve brought you a visitor. She is waiting outside. I shall let you lead the way, as I doubt you are able to go out the way I came in.” Sabine stoically ignored the snide reminder he now held more magic than her. Nor did she move to leave the chamber. She had little reason to trust the shifter. While he had held up his end of the bargain and not killed her or James when she’d given him her magic, she could not imagine his appearance within the coterie held positive ramifications. “You are speaking in riddles.” “No, not at all, actually. I am merely not telling the entire tale.” He glanced over his shoulder, to where James still slept in the other chamber. “And as I mentioned previously, I have no wish to speak to your lover tonight.” He scowled, and Sabine arched her brows. His scowl deepened. “Your coterie is in grave danger,” he finally admitted. “Others of my kind have learned of your location. You have precious little time.” “You were supposed to convince them—” “There is no convincing. Not with this lot. I once ran with this pack. They are the ones who instilled in me the belief that to kill you was to inherit your magic.” Sabine’s eyes widened. Their shared magic connection confirmed he spoke the truth. He nodded, as if pleased by what he saw in her features, and then indicated the curtain covering the doorway to the hall. While she still reeled from all that had happened between her and James, one aspect was clear: she was Queen of the Lightbearers. The king had decreed it. And as such, it was now her responsibility to protect her people. She lifted her chin and swept from the room, knowing without looking over her shoulder that he followed. A short time later, she hesitated at the entrance to the coterie, but the shifter strode past her, out into the night. “Come,” he tossed back at her. “Time is a precious commodity at the moment.” She first summoned a sword, the effort nearly drained all remaining magic she possessed. If what waited outside was dangerous, she hoped she would be able to fend it off with a weapon alone. She wished she had gone against the shifter’s wishes and woken James. Taking a deep, fortifying breath, she stepped outside to find the most elegant and beautiful woman she had ever seen standing there. Her hair was long and as dark and shiny as a crow’s feathers. Save for a thick braid that draped over her right shoulder and was secured with a golden clasp, the rest hung down her back to the swell of her hips. Over her hair rested a golden headpiece that wrapped around her forehead and sparkled with inlaid jewels. The tall, statuesque woman wore a black cloak, but it had been thrown over one shoulder, revealing a fitted pale blue dress that shimmered and sparkled as if it were alive. Her silver-eyed gaze stared back with a fascinated look edged with a distinct hunger that made Sabine nervous. “Sabine, I give you the Queen of the Fae,” the shifter pronounced. “And Queen Tatiana, I give you, er, I suspect, the Queen of the Lightbearers.” “You suspect?” the woman replied in a musical voice. “You led me to believe you knew this female.” “I do. I believe her status within the coterie has changed in the last few hours.” Sabine felt the flush rise up her chest until her face flamed, giving proof to the shifter’s words. The queen appeared amused by her reaction. “I see. Congratulations, I suppose.” She chuckled. The sound was like tinkling glass. The shifter sniffed the air and frowned. “Time is in short order, I’m afraid.” “Of course.” The queen focused her attention on Sabine. “This rather unique shifter has made it known that your coterie is in grave danger.” “So he told me, as well.” “I have a solution for you, if you are willing to take it.” Sabine only knew as much about the fae as she had learned in her history lessons as a youngling. While the fae did not want to kill the Lightbearers, they wanted to possess them, own them, control them. Lightbearers were to the fae what berries were to the young Lightbearer they’d rescued the day before: incredibly tantalizing and addictive. This uncontrollable urge was the reason the Lightbearers had left the Land of the Fae five centuries ago and moved to the human world—only to be faced with an entirely different and equally as dangerous threat from shifters. Where they destined to fight off a new threat every 500 years? “What is this solution?” Sabine asked. “I would have you agree to the terms before I divulge the details.” “What are your terms?” It was likely the suspicion in Sabine’s voice that caused the flicker of annoyance to briefly mar the queen’s beautiful features. “I know of a place where your entire coterie can hide from the shapeshifters for the rest of time, where they would never think to search for you. Once there, I will ensure it is properly protected with fae magic so that only Lightbearers will be able to find it. You will have fresh water, game, and plenty of land to grow fruits and vegetables. You will have the ability to be entirely self-sustaining; therefore Lightbearers shall never have to leave your coterie. You will finally be free of the threat that has plagued you since you entered this world.” “Why would you help us?” She did not trust the queen based on what she had been taught about the tricky beings. They were unable to lie, but they could twist the truth to the point where it was anything but, if it served their purpose. “In exchange for all that I offer, I give you this.” She lifted her hand, in which she cupped what looked like a blown-glass ornament. Inside was a tiny, carved village. There was only one resident in the little town, and he appeared to be alive, beating on the glass wall of his enclosure. He had dark hair, wore strange clothing, and looked utterly furious. “I would like you to keep it safe for me. Do not break the glass; do not tell anyone else you have it, except subsequent rulers. He may never leave his prison. Chaos shall ensue.” The queen offered the glass ball. Sabine stared at it and made no move to take it. Xander plucked it from the faery queen’s hand and lifted it to eye level, studying the being trapped within. “Is that a demon?” Another look of annoyance flashed across the faery queen’s face. “Precisely why this prison should never be broken.” Xander tossed the glass ball into the air, sending the figure within tumbling about his glass enclosure. Once Xander caught the ball, the figure inside righted himself and flashed the shifter an obscene hand gesture. “You would have the Lightbearers harbor a demon in their midst? That does not sound particularly safe.” Suddenly a shifter was concerned for the safety of Sabine’s people? To say this was a deviation from their normally contentious relationship was an understatement. Was it a result of the Lightbearer magic she’d given him? “It is entirely safe, so long as the glass is never broken,” the faery queen said. “Then why do you not keep it for yourself?” Xander offered the ball of glass to the dark-haired woman. The demon inside waved his hands at the queen, a challenging gesture, which she ignored. Instead, her silver eyes flashed and began to swirl like thick liquid. “The Land of the Fae is in a state of upheaval. There are enemies of the crown who would take great pleasure in shattering the glass and freeing that demon, in an effort to destroy me. And this creature has wreaked quite enough destruction to last several lifetimes. Eternal lifetimes.” She paused, the ebb and flow of her eyes slowing until they appeared almost human. “Securing him in a magically protected community here in the human world is the most logical and safe place, for everyone. Should you wish to take advantage of my offer, at any rate.” “Why are you doing this?” Sabine asked Xander. “Yes,” came another voice from behind her. She whipped around to find James standing at the entrance of the coterie, his sword at the ready. “Why don’t you enlighten all of us, shifter?” He strode to Sabine’s side and wrapped a protective arm around her shoulder. Xander scowled. The faery queen inclined her head. “You must be the Lightbearer king,” she said. “It is an honor and pleasure to meet you.” The woman’s eyes began to swirl again. Sabine slipped her arm around James’s waist. She did not like the interest she saw in the other woman’s eyes. “That is not what is important here,” Xander said. “What is, is whether you intend to accept the queen’s offer. And I suggest you not take significant time to ponder. Your worst fears are encroaching as we speak.” He glanced over his shoulder, as if he were afraid a pack of feral shifters would appear out of the darkness. “The shifter speaks the truth,” the faery queen confirmed. “Your enemies will be here by sunrise.” “Where would you have us go?” James asked. The queen inclined her head toward Xander. “Would you deliberately tell the shifter in your midst?” “He is not the enemy,” Sabine blurted before she could catch herself. The queen appeared amused by her outburst. “The queen is wise. You should not divulge such information in front of me. While I am not inclined to rejoin the pack coming for you, they could persuade me otherwise. And if I know where you are hiding …” Sabine struggled with indecision that was not all her own. While her connection to James was clearly defined by their having mated, she could also feel a connection to the shifter, as a result of their shared magic. Both men leaned toward agreeing on the safest course of action for the Lightbearers, yet each resented the other’s involvement. “As I understand it, you are the same queen who sent us here to this world, five centuries ago,” James said. The queen inclined her head, one succinct nod. “Did you know the shifters would be a threat when you made that decision?” he asked, watching her steadily. She appeared surprised by his question, and took a moment to contemplate her answer. “I did not. I knew they lived here, that they were the only magical beings who resided in this world. But I could not have foreseen their desire to seek your magic. Shifters, likely as a result of having been the only magic-bearing individuals in this world for so long, have always considered themselves superior to all other magical beings. I had assumed that meant they would have no interest in the Lightbearers when, in fact, the exact opposite happened and they determined they should claim Lightbearer magic as well as their own.” She turned her silver gaze onto Xander, who shrugged. “I do not detect any half-truths in her response,” James said. “We could stay and fight,” Sabine said. “We are not lambs to their wolves.” “Lambs or wolves are irrelevant when the numbers are drastically skewed,” Xander stated. “The encroaching pack has grown significantly since I left. They may have a thousand members by now, and undoubtedly have picked up strays along the way. Their leader is charismatic, and tells them fantastical stories of what he believes their lives will be like, when they possess both shifter and Lightbearer magic. Do you have enough warriors to fend them off?” Sabine felt James stiffen, undoubtedly from the shifter’s challenging tone. She subtly moved so she stood between the two men. When James did not reply, she said, “We do not.” She touched James’s arm. “Perhaps we should do it. Run one last time. Once we are in our new home, we will test everyone, figure out who has the ability to conjure a sword. We will train every day. We will assume we are not safe, so we never let our guard down. We will ensure we are never in a position to allow a shifter to kill one of our own, ever again. Do you agree?” she asked, watching the king. Her mate. “It is done,” the queen pronounced before James had an opportunity to voice his opinion. The atmosphere crackled with faery magic. While similar to a Lightbearer’s magic, the fae did not require sunlight to regenerate each day. They were an ancient species and had powers far beyond anything Lightbearers or shifters could comprehend. “We fae have the ability to move through space and time within the world in which we are currently located, so long as we recognize our destination. However, I can only take perhaps half a dozen of you at a time,” the queen explained. “Still, it will be significantly faster and safer than your entire coterie travelling across the land to your new home.” Sabine knew James feared leading his people into a trap, as much as he feared staying put and facing the well-known threat. Sabine pushed him toward the faery queen, ignoring the renewed spark of interest in the other woman’s eyes. “Go. Take Dirk and a few others. And a healer. See for yourself that she speaks the truth, although we already know this, as she cannot lie. I will stay here and gather the rest in the main chamber. If the destination is not to your liking, come back with her, and we will find another way.” She snagged the glass ball containing the angry demon. “I will keep this until I know you are safe. And if I do not hear from you in a timely manner, I shall set the demon free.” The queen’s eyes flared with anger and possibly a trace of respect. She paused, her nostrils flaring, and then she inclined her head. “You are a worthy queen, Lightbearer.” Sabine barely acknowledged the compliment before striding toward the entrance to the cave. James caught up with her when she reached the main chamber. He grabbed her arm and flung her around to face him. She worried he would lash out, be angry with her, but instead, he pulled her into his arms and hugged her until she could scarcely breathe. Then he cupped her face and kissed her with aching gentleness. “We will be together again,” he vowed. “I swear it. I will not—I cannot rule this coterie without you by my side.” Sabine smiled and blinked against unexpected tears. “You will not. I promise.” “I cannot wait to officially declare you my queen, with our subjects as witness.” “So this is your choice for a mate?” Sabine and James both turned their heads when his mother stepped out of the shadows and into the light James must have summoned before stepping outside earlier. Unlike most people who were awakened in the middle of the night, she was as elegant and put together as if she had spent hours preparing to attend a soirée. “Do not question my decision, Mother,” James said, his voiced edged with anger. “I realize she is not of the proper social standing to please you, but—” “But she makes you happy.” James snapped his mouth shut and stared at his mother, while Sabine stared at him. “That is all I ever wanted, you know. Well, and a plethora of grandbabes to spoil.” “You—you—all you’ve ever done was push these simpering socialites at me,” James protested. His mother rolled her eyes and flapped a hand as if swatting at a fly. “What else would you expect? That is who I know. I am the king’s mother. I do not make it a habit of socializing with our peasants. Whether right or wrong, that is the truth. Now, I will start the efforts to rouse the coterie and prepare them for travel. We are leaving tonight, I presume?” James nodded. “I will start with your parents, Sabine.” Before either of them could respond, she swept away across the hall and disappeared into the darkness. James pulled Sabine back into his arms and kissed her more fiercely than any other time previous. She clung to him, relishing the warmth spreading through her body, and silently vowed that once they had moved their people to their new home, she would never leave his side again. “We should practice giving your mother those grandbabes as soon as we are together again,” she said when he finally broke the kiss. He laughed. “Whatever your heart desires.” Sabine stepped out of his embrace and pointed at the hall to her right. “Go. Wake Dirk. I will help your mother gather the others and assign them to groups of six each. I will join you when all other Lightbearers have made it safely to our new home.” She turned away from him. It was time to wake her people. It was time to move them to safety. Chapter 8 “There are precious few Lightbearers left here, and yet you still remain. I cannot help but wonder why.” Sabine lifted her exhausted gaze to Xander, who leaned against the trunk of a tree, where he had stood sentinel for the past few hours while she arranged for each group of Lightbearers to travel with the faery queen to their new home. The time between the queen’s first disappearance, with James, Dirk, and four others, had seemed to last several lifetimes. But then the queen had appeared out of thin air, Dirk clinging to her hand, and James’s second-in-command had assured Sabine that while their new home was significantly colder than here, it was entirely safe and held all the promise the queen had mentioned. After that, the transfers had occurred with steady speed, one group after the other, until Sabine’s vision blurred with the constant flow of Lightbearers from the place they had called home for less than a year, to a place she still knew nothing about. Gently resting the glass orb containing the demon into a crevice in the cliff wall, she finally turned away and wandered over to Xander. “I am their queen now. It is my job to ensure everyone is safe. I will go with the last group.” And then I will never see you again. She did not understand why that thought caused an ache in her chest. She loved James. Her destiny was to rule the coterie by his side. So why did she feel so conflicted about Xander? “I can tell you are uncertain.” He pushed away from the tree trunk and stretched, revealing a tease of dark skin and muscle between the hem of his shirt and the waist of his trousers, before he dropped his arms and hid it from view again. “If I thought I could keep you safe, I would try to talk you into staying with me.” “I wouldn’t.” “Do not be so sure. You well know how determined I can be when I want something.” She smiled. “’Tis true, I suppose. Still, I have mated with James. I love him.” “You are afraid you could have feelings for me, as well.” She turned her head to the side. The sun had begun to rise, the red sphere steadily climbing over the horizon, casting streamers of light that widened with each passing minute. Her body greedily soaked up the replenishing rays. She could feel Xander’s reaction, the same as her own. Would she no longer sense him when she left this place? That, at least, would be a welcome change. It was tiring trying to sort through three sets of emotions in her head. A shift in the atmosphere warned her the faery queen had returned. The last group of Lightbearers hovered near the entrance to the soon-to-be abandoned series of chambers. Dirk appeared, as he had for each transfer, and began issuing orders. After a moment, he moved his head from side to side, as if searching for something. Finally, his gaze alighted on Sabine and Xander, and he strode toward them with purpose in his gait. “It is time, your grace. The king is anxious to have you by his side again,” he called out. “I am sure he is,” Xander drawled. Dirk scowled, and Xander growled, low in his throat. Sabine stepped in front of Xander. “Stop, both of you. Dirk, take those last few and ask the faery queen to return one last time for me.” He started to protest, and Sabine cut him off. “Take them. I will be here waiting when you return.” She spoke as if she had been born to be his queen. Maybe she had been. When he walked away, she focused on Xander. “I think as soon as they are gone, I shall steal one last kiss. For memory’s sake,” the shifter said. “You do not remember the kiss we shared?” “Vividly. Which is why I want another.” He reached for her, but before he could make contact, Sabine heard her name shouted and turned toward Dirk. He leaped away from the faery queen and remaining Lightbearers a scant second before the group disappeared, and began running toward Sabine and Xander, light and magic coalescing into a sword, while his face bore a combination of fear and determination. “They have found us,” Xander said. He pushed Sabine toward the cliff. “Get inside. Go!” But she couldn’t run for safety. A cougar leaped over the tiny stream and flew right at Dirk, who was between her and the entrance to the coterie. Dirk slashed his sword through the air, catching the shifter in mid-flight, but another came right behind it. “We must help Dirk,” Sabine called, and without even thinking about it, she summoned a sword, held it high, and charged toward the warrior. The pounding of boots on hardened earth told her Xander was right behind her. Sabine was so focused on getting to Dirk that she did not pay enough attention to her own surroundings until a slash of something razor-sharp caught her ankle and sent her tumbling to the damp earth next to the water. She cried out and watched as blood poured from four long wounds on her leg and soaked into the soil. A growl pulled her attention away from the pain, and she lifted her sword in time to block another attack. The animal yelped, indicating she’d wounded it, and scurried away, out of sight. But three more stalked toward her, murder in their glowing eyes. She darted her gaze around, saw Dirk battling with two shifters and Xander with three others. She was on her own—and she would not die. She could not. She had a coterie to co-rule. A king to return to. A mate to live for. They pounced, one at a time at first, and Sabine inched toward the wall of the cliff while slashing her sword back and forth, keeping them at bay. When they realized they could not take her down that way, they teamed up and attacked as a group, jumping, slashing out, causing numerous superficial injuries that, when combined, were quickly disabling her. And her magic, which hadn’t yet been fully replenished from the day before, was waning fast as she pulled on it to help her heft the sword that was getting heavier with each passing minute. She would not be able to fend them off much longer. And Dirk and Xander were not faring any better. In fact, Sabine could no longer see Xander, and that worried her. Had the attacking shifters killed him? Just as that fear hit her, a wolf joined the three shifters steadily attacking her. But instead of aiming his fury at Sabine, the wolf turned on the other animals. “Xander,” she said, her voice hardly more than a gasped breath as she watched him take down first one, then the second, and finally the third shifter. When he was done, his snout and half his body was covered in blood, and Sabine did not know if it was his or someone else’s. She cared only that they were dead and Xander was not. “Xander.” She said his name again and whimpered. He shifted into human form and dropped to the ground next to her. “Dirk?” she asked, afraid of the answer. “Alive. But will definitely need one of your healers.” “Are we safe?” “No. That was the first wave. There are more coming. We must get you to safety.” Sabine closed her eyes and rested her head against the wall of the cliff behind her, struggling to catch her breath and pull her emotions into check. “Thank you.” ‘Thank you.” “For what?” “Sharing your magic. It is a gift I will never take for granted.” She nodded. There wasn’t anything else to say on the subject. “The queen has returned, along with your king, I’m afraid. It looks as though I will not be able to spirit you away after all.” Sabine could hear the sounds of a scuffle, shouts, and cries of pain. The atmosphere was thick with magic and tension, yet she could not seem to pry her eyes open to see what was happening. She felt her hand move, and then something brushed against the back of it. Xander’s lips, she suspected. “The time has come for us to part ways, my Lightbearer.” The possession in the way he said my Lightbearer was unmistakable. She clutched at the hand that held her own. “What about you? Will they come after you?” “If they do, they will not catch me. Remember, I have shifter and Lightbearer magic now. I am practically invincible.” He chuckled at his own joke. She opened her eyes when he released her hand, and watched as he laboriously climbed to his feet. “I can see if the queen will bring back a healer, to tend to your wounds,” she offered. He shook his head. “I will shift. The process speeds our healing.” He glanced over his shoulder. When he turned back to her, his eyes were glowing. “You are safe now. Take care, Lightbearer. Perhaps, one day, our paths will cross again.” In the blink of an eye, he shifted from man to a majestic hawk and then flew away, up over the cliff and out of sight. Sabine lowered her gaze and watched as James hurried toward her, the look on his face both concerned and relieved. Confident Xander was right, she closed her eyes and let the darkness take her. James would bring her back to the light. Chapter 9 “I think we should build our permanent home at the top of the cliff.” Sabine tore her gaze away from the sparkling blue water and followed James’s line of vision to the wall of the cliff situated behind them. They sat side by side on a massive rock jutting from the swirling lake beside which they had settled their coterie. It was the height of summer, and they had made great inroads in the sixteen months since fleeing from the shifters in Mesoamerica. The land they had claimed along the great lake that seemed as large as the ocean was known as Michilimackinac. Before the Lightbearers took up residence, it had been utterly wild and uninhabited by humans. They had constructed a village at the base of the cliff, along the shore of the freshwater lake. They had moved here during the last dredges of winter and had now survived their first full snowy season, along with the rebirth of spring, the lazy heat of summer, and the utterly breathtaking beauty of fall. The Lightbearers were thriving in their magically protected home. Fear that the shifters would find them was slowly waning. Sabine’s own fear that the glass ball containing an imprisoned demon would somehow be broken was also ebbing. When she did not immediately respond to his comment, James continued. “The staircase built into the wall of the cliff is complete. The land up there is warded against shifters, just as it is down here. With your blessing, my queen, I shall command that construction begin at once.” He lifted her hand and kissed the back. The memory of another man who had once done the same thing swirled to the surface of her mind, and Sabine stubbornly pushed it away. She had made her choice, and she did not regret it. If she occasionally wondered what if, it was not because she was not happy with what she had, but rather a mild curiosity about what might have been. “Why the hurry?” she asked, smiling at her mate. James released her hand and cupped her burgeoning belly. “The future king will be born in less than three months’ time. I want you to birth him in your new home.” “You believe you can build a new home at the top of the cliff in less than three months?” “It shall be done,” he declared, as if she’d issued some sort of challenge. He leaped to his feet and pulled her to hers, kissing her thoroughly before helping her off the rock and onto the sandy beach. “Come. I will return you to the village square, and then I will round up a team of carpenters. Our new home shall be started before sundown.” She pulled him close and kissed him again. “I love you, your grace.” He laughed. He had been so insistent early on in their relationship that she not refer to him by his formal title, she had adopted it as a pet name. “I love you, too, my beautiful warrior.” She patted her rounded belly. “I am hardly capable of defending our people at the moment.” “You will be again soon. I have no doubt.” Sabine smiled and twined her fingers with his, walking by his side along the water’s edge. Movement caught her eye, and she turned her head toward the lake. A hawk flew past her line of vision, dipped and twisted round and flew past again. She lifted her hand in a brief wave. She had no idea if the hawk was a shifter, or even one specific shifter, but somehow, seeing it at that moment gave her peace. The End Thank you for reading the prequel to the Lightbearer series. Turn the page for a sample of the next book in the series, Into the Light. Chapter 1 They found him in a no-name bar in a no-name town, playing pool and getting hustled by a human. Tanner spared a moment to determine he would rather continue to be hustled out of his hard-earned cash than to talk with the two shifters who stood at the other end of the pool table. He bent at the waist to take his shot, brushing an errant lock of hair out of his face as he did so. The redheaded woman in the pink shirt and blue-jean mini that barely covered her ass noticed the gesture. He wondered how fast he could get rid of the two reminders of a life he’d left behind ten years ago, so he could make a move on the human. Tanner took his time taking his shot, partially as an excuse to size up the intruders on his shifterless life. Finnegan Hennigan, coppery hair, pale blue eyes, same age as Tanner, arguably the best tracker in Tanner’s former pack—if not the country. Not surprising they’d found him with Finn assigned to the task. The other one was Mickey Rollins, dark hair, dark eyes, a young punk who couldn’t be more than twenty, was probably more like seventeen or eighteen. Tanner remembered him as one of the many in the pack who idolized the pack leader and everything he stood for. “Your father sent us,” Mickey said when Tanner made no move to acknowledge their presence. Tanner did not take his eyes off the pool table. “There’s a shadow on the table,” he commented in a gravelly voice that was rough as sandpaper from lack of use. Tanner didn’t talk much. He didn’t have anyone in his life worth talking to. Mickey scowled, but obligingly shuffled to the side. Finn smirked. Tanner took his shot, a sloppy one that nonetheless landed in the corner pocket. His human opponent nodded his approval and offered a word of advice for the next time he had the same opportunity. Mickey looked enraged that the human was even speaking to Tanner, let alone offering him advice on playing pool. “He wants to see you, Tanner.” Mickey tried again to pull Tanner’s attention. “I don’t give a fuck what that bastard wants.” He took another shot and succeeded in pocketing the cue ball. “He captured a lightbearer.” Tanner didn’t even lift an eyebrow. “Again? You know, Wyoming doesn’t have a very large human population to begin with. At the rate my father is going, he’s going to wipe them out.” “It’s for real this time,” Mickey assured him. He glanced at the human pool player, who appeared oblivious to their conversation as he proceeded to run the table. It’s always “for real this time.” “Quentin Lyons rules the most powerful shifter pack in the country. He has everything a shifter would want. Why the fuck does he keep wasting his time chasing myths?” He even had women, any and all the women he could possibly want, Tanner thought ruefully as he eyed the redhead again. Unlike Quentin, Tanner sometimes had to work to attract a warm, willing body into his bed. At a young age, Tanner had become aware that Quentin made a habit of sleeping around, despite having been mated to Tanner’s mother for nearly forty years. Shifters may mate for life, but in Quentin’s world, that didn’t mean they had to stay faithful for life. Another reason to despise the man. “It’s not a myth,” Mickey insisted. His gaze darted to Tanner’s human opponent. Discussing business associated with the magical world was strictly off-limits in front of humans, and Tanner knew it was making Mickey nervous that he didn’t seem concerned that the human had overheard any part of their conversation. “No one can inherit magic from anyone,” Tanner replied, deliberately speaking at a normal level. The human could hear their conversation, Tanner well knew. The thing about humans, he’d learned, was that they only heard what they wanted to hear. “Quentin says it’s true,” Mickey stubbornly pressed on. “So that makes it true?” Tanner said with sour amusement in his voice. “Yes,” Mickey insisted, absolutely convinced. Finn stood with his back against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, observing the interaction but offering no opinion. Tanner wondered if he even had an opinion on the subject, or if he followed blindly like all the rest in Quentin’s pack. “Tell him I’m not interested in his stupid obsession,” Tanner suggested without looking at the messengers. He didn’t want them to see the guilt in his eyes. All three knew that if Tanner didn’t go back to the pack with Mickey and Finn, Quentin would take out his wrath on the messengers. It had happened plenty of times over the course of the last ten years. Every time they found him. Time to move again. Mickey shoved his hand into the front pocket of his jeans and pulled out a scrap of material. It was white with silver and gold thread woven into the material. He thrust the scrap at Tanner. “It’s true,” he insisted. “Feel this. You can still feel her magic.” The human won the game, and Tanner pulled two twenties out of his wallet. “Why don’t you go get us all a round?” he suggested. He wasn’t surprised when the human nodded his head and did Tanner’s bidding. Whether he wanted to acknowledge it or not, he was a natural-born leader. Future pack master. No. I made my choice. I chose to live by my own rules, not his. He noticed that the redhead had lost interest and moved away from the pool table, probably because none of the men in the pool area were paying her any attention. Not all my choices are my own, he thought with disappointment, as her swinging ass disappeared around the corner. Tanner pulled his eyes away from the sight and studied the scrap of material. In truth, he could feel ... something without even touching the stuff. But it had to be a trick of some sort. There were plenty of other magical beings in the universe. Not many that lived in the human world, though. Only the shifters claimed that right. Everybody else had their own worlds in which to live. “Descendants of the fae,” Mickey said in an excited voice, reciting what they’d all learned as younglings, crouched around Quentin’s knee as he expounded about his obsession. “They moved to our world to get away from the fae, who were so obsessed with them that they wanted to enslave the entire race.” “I sense a theme here,” Tanner drawled. Mickey flushed and angrily pressed on. “Their magic is renewable. Everybody knows it.” “Yeah, I get that they got their magic from the sun,” Tanner acknowledged. He eyed the scrap of material in Mickey’s hand. “But no one has seen a trace of lightbearers in over five hundred years. Somebody wiped them out. Probably our kind, trying to inherit their magic.” “Probably our kind eating them for dinner,” Finn contributed to the conversation for the first time. “Back then we were slightly more primal.” “Slightly,” Tanner remarked tongue in cheek. Finn smirked. Tanner recalled how they used to hang out together as kids. They’d shifted for the first time together. Now, Finn was Quentin’s best tracker, and Tanner was doing his best to avoid getting sucked back into the pack. Time and change and all that. “If a shifter kills a lightbearer, he’ll inherit its magic.” Mickey refused to give up on Quentin’s obsession. Considering the only magic a shifter possessed was the ability to change forms at will, it was a heady idea to be able to steal another creature’s magic. Especially for one who considered himself to be the top of the food chain, even without much magic. “Touch it,” Mickey demanded as he waved the bit of material in Tanner’s face. Tanner batted at the material, if only to push it away. His fingers skimmed the surface. A jolt shot through his system, so raw and potent that his entire body reacted as if he’d been electrocuted. “Told ya,” Mickey said triumphantly. “Give me that,” Tanner said as he snatched the torn bit of material out of Mickey’s hand. He held it, reveling in the feel of magic there. It felt ... intoxicating. “Where did you get this?” His breathing accelerated as he stared at the gold and silver thread that wove a pattern through the white material. “The lightbearer. Your father figured you wouldn’t come unless you had proof.” Tanner continued to stare at the material. It wasn’t true—was it? Tanner—and a great many other shifters—believed they didn’t really exist. His father had never let go of the belief that they were simply hiding, and all he had to do was find one of them. Just one. Was his father right? Fates be damned, but Tanner certainly hoped not. He’d spent the better part of his life desperately hating the man for what he represented, for how he ruled his pack, for the way he treated Tanner’s mother and every other woman in his pack. Most of all, he’d hated the man for his obsession over a race of magical creatures that Tanner had been certain no longer existed. Tanner didn’t understand his father’s obsession. The man was already pack master over one of the largest and most respected—or at least feared—packs in the country. He didn’t need magic to gain prestige and power. He already had it all. “Come on, Tanner,” Mickey begged. “He won’t let none of us see her until you come back to the pack. He says you get the first honor. Come on.” Tanner continued to stare at the scrap of material for a few more moments, pondering his decision. Finally, he tossed the pool stick onto the table. “Damn it to hell,” he muttered as he turned and strode from the pool area, out of the bar and into the cool summer evening air. Damn the man for luring him back like this. * * * * “Holy fuck. It’s true.” Tanner stared at the evidence curled up against the far wall of one of the cells built into the basement of his father’s overblown manor home. Only Quentin Lyons would think to add underground cells when he was having his home custom built, some thirty years ago. Tanner still couldn’t believe the man was right to keep searching, to keep obsessing. Yet there she was, a petite, fragile-looking thing, sitting on the floor with her knees pulled up to her chest, glaring at him through iron bars that were obviously strong enough to dampen her magic at least somewhat. Otherwise, Tanner assumed she would have tried to escape by now. She had long blonde hair that was tangled and matted and looked as if she hadn’t been captured easily. Which made sense, because otherwise, Quentin would have found one before now, right? Her eyes were bright, bright blue, the opposite end of the spectrum from Tanner and many other shifters, who tended to have pale blue eyes. They were large in her small, heart-shaped face. Her torn dress was white with gold and silver designs sewn into it. The dress clung to a body that was slight, with small breasts, narrow hips, and thin legs. What was most intriguing, however, was the faint shimmer of magic that danced around her body like a thousand tiny sparks. He could see it, even in this dimly lit basement. “Yeah, can you believe it?” Tanner turned his head to the left and studied the shifter who had been awarded the privilege of bringing him down to the basement. The kid stared at the caged lightbearer, panting slightly, a fox studying its prey in the hen house. Tanner subtly stepped to the right, bodily putting himself between the young shifter and the caged lightbearer. “Aren’t you the asshole who killed four humans in cold blood just recently?” The kid affected a defensive look. “I thought they were lightbearers.” Tanner waved at the woman crouched in the cell. “Did they look like this? Remotely? Did magic spark off their skin?” The defensive look turned mulish. “I thought you were in the human jail?” The kid shrugged. “I just waited until no one was around and then I shifted into the form of a rat and snuck away,” he boasted. Tanner felt disgusted. Four lives, wasted, just because Quentin’s poison had seeped into the entire damn pack. Sometimes he felt like the only shifter who did not support his father’s evil ways. And he was blood related to the man. If anyone should feel obligated to believe in him, it should be Tanner. Yet he was the only one willing to defy the pack master. He’d moved away from the pack ten years ago and only came back on the rare occasion that Quentin pulled some stunt like this to lure him back. Not that he’d ever managed to quite pull this stunt before. “Get out of here,” Tanner snapped. He was relieved when the kid slunk away with only minimal protest. Technically, Tanner had no pull within this pack, not since he left and walked away from his birthright. But shifters were a hardwired lot, and it would be difficult for any of them to defy him, despite his standing—or lack thereof. Once he was alone in the basement with the silently observing lightbearer, Tanner walked closer to the cell and leaned against the iron bars. Iron did not affect shifters the way it affected the fae—and lightbearers, apparently. He was pretty certain the petite woman shrank away from the iron more so than him. She was attractive, he decided, despite the tangled hair and torn dress. But not his usual type. When he looked at the shimmering magical creature, the words elegant and refined came to mind. Not words that would describe his lifestyle—or the women in it. Tanner liked women who had only one expectation and understood that they were not invited to stay for breakfast. Women who looked like this lightbearer were not the sort who understood the rules of that particular game. She was the type of woman Tanner would admire from a purely masculine standpoint and then walk away from—as he headed to the nearest nightclub. “What’s your name?” he asked. She didn’t answer. “Are you really a lightbearer?” She still refused to answer. He stood there for a while, studying her, as she studied him back. She looked defiant, determined not to give him anything, especially answers. “I’m not like the rest of them,” he said. “I don’t believe all that crap about killing lightbearers to gain their magic.” He did not imagine the look of cautious relief in her eyes. So she knew the legends as well. “Are you worried it’s true?” he asked. “I am more worried that you’ll try to find out.” Her voice was soft, with an accent that was part Midwest, part something else, something ... magical. He cocked his head. “Do you live here in this world?” he asked curiously. A magical creature with a Midwestern accent? Her chin lifted a notch and she refused to answer, but that was answer enough. Tanner whistled. “Hot damn, not only was my father right about your continued existence, but he was right about you living in this world. Where do you live?” Not surprisingly, she did not answer. “I’ll find out from the ones who captured you, so you might as well tell me,” he pointed out. “Vegas,” she finally ground out. She wrapped her arms more tightly around her legs and rested her chin on her knees as she continued to watch him with those overlarge eyes. “You live in Vegas?” He was surprised by this information. Vegas did not seem very far from where his father’s pack lived, considering how far and wide he’d sent scouts to search for her species. Although, in reality, Vegas made perfect sense. It was sunny nearly all the time, and eclectic enough that even magical creatures would be able to blend in fairly easily. He wondered how many of them lived in Vegas, and how his father had finally figured this out. She shook her head. “That is where they caught me.” “And what were you doing in Vegas?” “Gambling. Playing. Enjoying myself. At least, I was until your stupid guard dogs figured out what I was,” she spat. So she didn’t live in Vegas. “Not my guard dogs,” Tanner reminded her. “I’m not pack master here. Trust me, you’ll know him when you meet him.” “I already have.” She shivered. Yep, she knew Quentin. “Are there others in Vegas?” She paused and then shook her head. “Are there others in this world?” “If you think I’m going to give up the location of the coterie, you are sadly mistaken. Even if I wanted to or was coerced to do so, I could not. We are all under the influence of a very powerful spell. It does not allow us to disclose the location, even under duress. You would simply have to kill me.” “I’m not going to kill you,” Tanner spat irritably, and then he frowned. “What’s a coterie?” “Where we live. A secret place that no one has discovered for five hundred years.” Her voice was slightly boastful. “But it’s not in Vegas. So why were you in Vegas? Presumably alone?” She hesitated again, and then apparently decided she had nothing to lose. “The coterie is like a tiny village. We are self-sustaining, all inclusive. We live our lives exactly as the king instructs us. It can become terribly oppressive.” She complained like a petulant child. Tanner couldn’t help smiling. “And you prefer to have fun, regardless of the potential danger.” “There hasn’t been a shifter attack in centuries,” she pointed out. “You just said your coterie is so well hidden no one has found it in five hundred years.” The woman frowned and said nothing. “My name is Tanner Lyons. What’s yours?” “Why do you care? You’re only going to kill me.” The shimmer of magic surrounding her body brightened for a moment. Tanner’s eyes flared briefly as he felt the impact as if she’d touched him instead of simply glared at him. He shook his head and made an exasperated sound. “I told you I’m not going to kill you.” “Why not?” “I don’t think like the pack master. I didn’t even believe you all existed, let alone that you can share your magic.” And it would be a damn shame to kill someone so pretty. “Then set me free,” she challenged. “Shh,” he said as he cocked his head to listen to a sound only he could hear, thanks to his intensified shifter hearing. “Someone’s coming.” The lightbearer shrank into herself, curling her body into a tighter ball as she watched the basement stairs with growing trepidation. Quentin had obviously made quite an impression on her. Then he was there, the man himself. Tanner’s sire, not that he was particularly pleased or honored by that fact. Long, pitch-black hair, a well-groomed beard shot with silver, and muscles to rival any twenty-year old, Quentin Lyons was without a doubt a force with which to be reckoned. If not for the silver in his beard and the fact that his eyes were black, whereas Tanner’s were a pale blue, the two men could be twins. Tanner knew the only reason he’d been able to defy the pack master ten years ago was because he was Quentin’s only legitimate offspring, and his father was under the delusion that he would step up and take over the pack someday. Not likely. “Ah, the prodigal son returns,” Quentin drawled, his dark eyes sweeping over Tanner, as if searching for an indication that he’d decided to change his ways since the last time the two men met. Tanner fought, as always, to remain passive in front of the dominant shifter. Do not let him know he gets to you. “Mickey made it difficult to say no this time.” Quentin chuckled. “As I knew he would. I told him it was his life or you. I am pleased he chose you. How did he do it?” At least he didn’t pretend Tanner wanted to be there. “Produced a bit of fabric from the woman’s dress,” Tanner said as he thrust his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the lightbearer in the cage behind him. Quentin nodded thoughtfully. “The boy is smarter than I gave him credit for. Perhaps it is time for a shift in the ranks.” Tanner hoped not. A shift in the ranks was meant to be an honor, but to get there, Mickey would have to fight one of Quentin’s strongest guards in a dogfight that would probably kill one of them. Tanner’s money, unfortunately, would not be on Mickey to survive. Quentin’s eyes shifted to the lightbearer. “I did it,” he murmured, sounding reverent. “I was right.” “You were right that lightbearers still exist,” Tanner said carefully. Be that as it may, Tanner still could not accept the idea of killing this woman in cold blood, just on the off chance that Quentin might inherit her magic. “Can you see the magic, son?” Quentin’s eyes had begun to glow, a steady, dim light that was indicative of his level of excitement. “It’s her magic,” Tanner said. “If you kill her, you kill the magic as well.” “You don’t know that.” “You don’t know that you will inherit it, either.” “The legends were right about their existence,” Quentin pointed out. “Why would you think they wouldn’t be right about the magic?” Tanner shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense. No magical beings have ever had the ability to share magic. Ever, in the history of magic. Leave her be. Let her go.” Quentin’s eyes shifted to focus on Tanner. “You aren’t leading this pack yet,” he growled. Tanner bit back his own growl. Telling his old man that he had no intention of ever ruling his pack would send the man into a rage, as Tanner well knew from past experience. And if his father flew into a rage, the petite lightbearer was most certainly as good as dead. “You won’t inherit her magic if you kill her,” he tried again. “You’re right,” Quentin surprised him by saying. “You will.”

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